As the American Revolution rages on the mainland, the British Navy prepares for action at sea. Against a growing fleet of American and French privateers, the navy must maintain its blockade of Washington's vital military supplies. Caught up in the turmoil, junior officer Richard Bolitho finds himself having to make momentous decisions in the heat of battledecisions that could affect the lives of many men and, perhaps, even the fate of nations.
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.
Read an Excerpt
In Gallant Company
The Bolitho Novels: 3
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1977 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.
All rights reserved.
SHOW OF STRENGTH
The stiff offshore wind, which had backed slightly to the northwest during the day, swept across New York's naval anchorage, bringing no release from the chilling cold and the threat of more snow.
Tugging heavily at her anchor cables, His Britannic Majesty's Ship Trojan of eighty guns might appear to a landsman's unpractised eye as indifferent to both wind and water. But to the men who continued with their work about her decks, or high above them on the slippery yards and rigging, her swaying motion made her anything but that.
It was March 1777, but to Lieutenant Richard Bolitho, officer of the afternoon watch, it felt like midwinter. It will be dark early, he thought, and the ship's boats would have to be checked, their moorings doubly secured before night closed in completely.
He shivered, not so much because of the cold, but because he knew there would be little relief from it once he was allowed to go below. For despite her massive size and armament, the Trojan, a two-decked ship of the line, whose complement of six hundred and fifty officers, seamen and marines lived out their lives within her fat hull, had no more than the galley fires and body-warmth to sustain them, no matter what the elements might do.
Bolitho raised his telescope and trained it towards the fading waterfront. As the lens passed over other anchored ships of the line, frigates and the general clutter of small supporting craft he found time to wonder at the change. It had been just last summer when Trojan, in company with a great fleet of one hundred and thirty ships, had anchored here, off Staten Island. After the shock of the actual revolution within the American colonies, the occupation of New York and Philadelphia with such a show of force had seemed to those involved as a start on the way back, a compromise.
It had been such a simple and leisurely affair at the time. After placing his troops under canvas along the green shoreline of Staten Island, General Howe, with a token force of infantry, had gone ashore to take possession. All the preparations by the Continentals and local militia had come to nothing, and even the Staten Island force of four hundred men, who had been commanded by General Washington to defend the redoubts at all costs, had grounded their muskets and obligingly sworn allegiance to the Crown.
Bolitho lowered the glass as it blurred in drifting snow. It was hard to recall the green island and crowds of onlookers, the Loyalists cheering, the rest watching in grim silence. Now all the colours were in shades of grey. The land, the tossing water, even the ships seemed to have lost their brightness in the persistent and lingering winter.
He took a few paces this way and that across Trojan's spacious quarterdeck, his shoes slipping on the planking, his damp clothing tugging at him in the wind. He had been in the ship for two years. It was beginning to feel a lifetime. Like many others throughout the fleet, he had felt mixed feelings at the news of the revolution. Surprise and shock. Sympathy and then anger. And above all the sense of helplessness.
The revolution, which had begun as a mixture of individual ideals, had soon developed into something real and challenging. The war was like nothing they had known before. Big ships of the line like Trojan moved ponderously from one inflamed incident to another, and were well able to cope with anything which was careless enough to stray under their massive broadsides. But the real war was one of communications and supply, of small, fast vessels, sloops, brigs and schooners. And throughout the long winter months, while the overworked ships of the inshore squadrons had patrolled and probed some fifteen hundred miles of coastline, the growing strength of the Continentals had been further aided by Britain's old enemy, France. Not openly as yet, but it would not be long before the many French privateers which hunted from the Canadian border to the Caribbean showed their true colours. After that, Spain too would be a quick if unwilling ally. Her trade routes from the Spanish Main were perhaps the longest of all, and with little love for England anyway, she would likely take the easiest course.
All this and more Bolitho had heard and discussed over and over again until he was sick of it. Whatever the news, good or bad, the Trojan's role seemed to be getting smaller. Like a rock she remained here in harbour for weeks on end, her company resentful, the officers hoping for a chance to leave her and find their fortunes in swifter, more independent ships.
Bolitho thought of his last ship, the twenty-eight-gun frigate Destiny. Even as her junior lieutenant, and barely used to the sea-change from midshipman's berth to wardroom, he had found excitement and satisfaction beyond belief.
He stamped his feet on the wet planks, seeing the watch-keepers at the opposite side jerk round with alarm. Now he was fourth lieutenant of this great, anchored mammoth, and looked like remaining so.
Trojan would be better off in the Channel Fleet, he thought. Manoeuvres and showing the flag to the watchful French, and whenever possible slipping ashore to Plymouth or Portsmouth to meet old friends.
Bolitho turned as familiar footsteps crossed the deck from the poop. It was Cairns, the first lieutenant, who like most of the others had been aboard since the ship had recommissioned in 1775 after being laid up in Bristol where she had originally been built.
Cairns was tall, lean and very self-contained. If he too was pining over the next step in his career, a command of his own perhaps, he never showed it. He rarely smiled, but nevertheless was a man of great charm. Bolitho both liked and respected him, and often wondered what he thought of the captain.
Cairns paused, biting his lower lip, as he peered up at the towering criss-cross of shrouds and running rigging. Thinly coated with clinging snow, the yards looked like the branches of gaunt pines.
He said, "The captain will be coming off soon. I'll be on call, so keep a weather-eye open."
Bolitho nodded, gauging the moment. Cairns was twenty-eight, while he was not yet twenty-one. But the span between first and fourth lieutenant was still the greater.
He asked casually, "Any news of our captain's mission ashore, sir?"
Cairns seemed absorbed. "Get those topmen down, Dick. They'll be too frozen to turn-to if the weather breaks. Pass the word for the cook to break out some hot soup." He grimaced. "That should please the miserly bugger." He looked at Bolitho. "Mission?"
"Well, I thought we might be getting orders." He shrugged. "Or something."
"He has been with the commander-in-chief certainly. But I doubt we'll hear anything stronger than the need for vigilance and an eye to duty!"
"I see." Bolitho looked away. He was never sure when Cairns was being completely serious.
Cairns tugged his coat around his throat. "Carry on, Mr Bolitho."
They touched their hats to each other, the informality laid aside for the moment.
Bolitho called, "Midshipman of the watch!" He saw one of the drooping figures break away from the shelter of the hammock nettings and bound towards him.
It was Couzens, thirteen years old, and one of the new members of the ship's company, having been sent out from England aboard a transport. He was round-faced, constantly shivering, but made up for his ignorance with a willingness which neither his superiors nor the ship could break.
Bolitho told him about the cook, and the captain's expected return, then instructed him to arrange for piping the relief for the first dog-watch. He passed his instructions without conscious thought, but watched Couzens instead, seeing not him but himself at that tender age. He had been in a ship of the line, too. Chased, harried, bullied by everyone, or so it had seemed. But he had had one hero, a lieutenant who had probably never even noticed him as a human being. And Bolitho had always remembered him. He had never lost his temper without cause. Never found escape in humiliating others when he had received a telling-off from his captain. Bolitho had hoped he would be like that lieutenant one day. He still hoped.
Couzens nodded firmly. "Aye, aye, sir."
Trojan carried nine midshipmen, and Bolitho sometimes wondered how their lives would take shape. Some would rise to flag rank, others drop by the wayside. There would be the usual sprinkling of tyrants and of leaders, of heroes and cowards.
Later, as the new watch was being mustered below the quarter-deck, one of the look-outs called, "Boat approaching, sir!" The merest pause. "'Tis the captain!"
Bolitho darted a quick glance at the milling confusion below the quarterdeck. The captain could not have chosen a better time to catch them all out.
He yelled, "Pass the word for the first lieutenant! Man the side, and call the boatswain directly!"
Men dashed hither and thither through the gloom, and while the marines tramped stolidly to the entry port, their crossbelts very white in the poor light, the petty officers tried to muster the relieving watch-keepers into some semblance of order.
A boat appeared, pulling strongly towards the main chains, the bowman already standing erect with his hook at the ready.
The coxswain's cry came back instantly. "Trojan!"
Their lord and master was back. The man who, next to God, controlled each hour of their lives, who could reward, flog, promote or hang as the situation dictated, was amongst their crowded world once more.
When Bolitho glanced round again he saw that where there had been chaos there was order, with the marines lined up, muskets to their shoulders, their commanding officer, the debonair Captain D'Esterre, standing with his lieutenant, apparently oblivious to wind and cold.
The boatswain's mates were here, moistening their silver calls on their lips, and Cairns, his eyes everywhere, waited to receive his captain.
The boat hooked on to the chains, the muskets slapped and cracked to the present while the calls shrilled in piercing salute. The captain's head and shoulders rose over the side, and while he doffed his cocked hat to the quarterdeck he too examined the ship, his command, with one sweeping scrutiny.
He said curtly, "Come aft, Mr Cairns." He nodded to the marine officers. "Smart turn-out, D'Esterre." He turned abruptly and snapped, "Why are you here, Mr Bolitho?" As he spoke, eight bells chimed out from the forecastle. "You should have been relieved, surely?"
Bolitho looked at him. "I think Mr Probyn is detained, sir."
"Do you indeed." The captain had a harsh voice which cut above the din of wind and creaking spars like a cutlass. "The responsibility of watch-keeping is as much that of the relief as the one awaiting it." He glanced at Cairns' impassive face. "'Pon my soul, Mr Cairns, not a difficult thing to learn, I'd have thought?"
They walked aft, and Bolitho breathed out very slowly.
Lieutenant George Probyn, his immediate superior, was often late taking over his watch, and other duties too for that matter. He was the odd man in the wardroom, morose, argumentative, bitter, although for what reason Bolitho had not yet discovered. He saw him coming up the starboard ladder, broad, untidy, peering around suspiciously.
Bolitho faced him. "The watch is aft, Mr Probyn."
Probyn wiped his face and then blew his nose in a red handkerchief.
"I suppose the captain was asking about me?"
Even his question sounded hostile.
"He noted you were absent." Bolitho could smell brandy, and added, "But he seemed satisfied enough."
Probyn beckoned to a master's mate and scanned quickly through the deck log which the man held below a lantern.
Bolitho said wearily, "Nothing unusual to report. One seaman injured and taken to the sickbay. He fell from the boat tier."
Probyn sniffed. "Shame." He closed the book. "You are relieved." He watched him broodingly. "If I thought anyone was making trouble for me behind my back ..."
Bolitho turned away, hiding his anger. Do not fret, my drunken friend. You are doing that for yourself.
Probyn's rumbling voice followed him to the companion as he put his men to their stations and allotted their tasks.
As he ran lightly down the companion ladder and made his way aft towards the wardroom, Bolitho wondered what the captain was discussing with Cairns.
Once below, the ship seemed to enfold him, contain him with her familiarity. The combined smells of tar and hemp, of bilge and packed humanity, they were as much a part of Bolitho as his own skin.
Mackenzie, the senior wardroom servant, who had ended his service as a topmen when a fall from aloft had broken his leg in three places and made him a permanent cripple, met him with a cheery smile. If everyone else was sorry for him, Mackenzie at least was well satisfied. His injuries had given him as much comfort and security as any man could hope to find in a King's ship.
"I've some coffee, sir. Piping hot, too." He had a soft Scottish accent which was very like Cairns'.
Bolitho peeled off his coat and handed it with his hat to Logan, a ship's boy who helped in the wardroom.
"I'd relish that, thank you."
The wardroom, which ran the whole breadth of the ship's stern, was wreathed in tobacco smoke and touched with its own familiar aromas of wine and cheese. Right aft the great stern windows were already in darkness, and as the counter swung slightly to the pull of the massive anchor it was possible to see an occasional light glittering from the shore like a lost star.
Hutchlike cabins, little more than screens which would be torn down when the ship cleared for action, lined either side. Tiny havens which contained the owner's cot, chest and a small hanging space. But each was at least private. Apart from the cells, about the only place in the ship a man could be alone.
Directly above, and in a cabin which matched in size and space that which contained most of his officers, was the captain's domain. Also on that deck was the master and the first lieutenant, to be in easy reach of the quarterdeck and the helm.
But here, in the wardroom, was where they all shared their moments off-duty. Where they discussed their hopes and fears, ate their meals and took their wine. The six lieutenants, two marine officers, the sailing master, the purser and the surgeon. It was crowded certainly, but when compared with the below-thewaterline quarters of the midshipmen and other warrant officers and specialists, let alone the great majority of seamen and marines, it was luxury indeed.
Dalyell, the fifth lieutenant, sat beneath the stern windows, his legs crossed and resting on a small keg, a long clay pipe balanced in one hand.
"George Probyn adrift again, eh, Dick?"
Bolitho grinned. "It is becoming a habit."
Sparke, the second lieutenant, a severe-faced man with a coin-shaped scar on one cheek, said, "I'd drag him to the captain if I were the senior here." He returned to a tattered news-sheet and added vehemently, "These damned rebels seem to do what they like! Two more transports seized from under our frigates' noses, and a brig cut out of harbour by one of their bloody privateers! We're too soft on 'em!"
Bolitho sat down and stretched, grateful to be out of the wind, even though he knew the illusion of warmth would soon pass.
His head lolled, and when Mackenzie brought the mug of coffee he had to shake his shoulder to awaken him.
In companionable silence the Trojan's officers drew comfort from their own resources. Some read, others wrote home, letters which might never reach those for whom they were intended.
Bolitho drank his coffee and tried to ignore the pain in his forehead. Without thinking, his hand moved up and touched the rebellious lock of black hair above his right eye. Beneath it was a livid scar, the source of the pain. He had received it when he had been in Destiny. It often came back to him at moments like this. The illusion of safety, the sudden rush of feet and slashing, hacking weapons. The agony and the blood. Oblivion.
There was a tap at the outer screen door, and then Mackenzie said to Sparke, who was the senior officer present, "Your pardon, sir, but the midshipman of the watch is here."
The boy stepped carefully into the wardroom, as if he was walking on precious silk.
Sparke snapped curtly, "What is it, Mr Forbes?"
Excerpted from In Gallant Company by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1977 Bolitho Maritime Productions 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This series is very engaging with great characters - both the main character as well as the supporting characters. The historical realism for the setting as well as the environment the characters live within the ships has you smelling the salt air, feeling the wind and recoiling at the din and horror created by the ships cannons. Very good read at any time of the year! If you like these you'll also enjoy Dudley Pope's "Ramage" series, and Patrick O'Brian's seafaring series. O'Brian's is more technically challenging for it's nautical terms. Enjoy!