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"Bear a fist there, y' scowbunkin' lubbers!" The loud bellow startled the group around the forebitts who were amiably watching the sailors at the pin-rail swigging off on the topsail lift. The men moved quickly to obey: this was Thomas Kydd, the hard-horse master's mate, whose hellish open-boat voyage in the Caribbean eighteen months ago was still talked about in the navy.
Kydd's eyes moved about the deck. It was his way never to go below at the end of a watch until all was neatly squared away, ready for those relieving, but there was little to criticize in these balmy breezes on the foredeck of the 64-gun ship-of-the-line Achilles as she crossed the broad Atlantic bound for Gibraltar.
Kydd was content -- to be a master's mate after just four years before the mast was a rare achievement. It entitled him to walk the quarterdeck with the officers, to mess in the gunroom, and to wear a proper uniform complete with long coat and breeches. No one could mistake him now for a common sailor.
Royal blue seas, with an occasional tumbling line of white, and towering fluffy clouds brilliant in southern sunshine: they were to enter the Mediterranean to join Admiral Jervis. It would be the first time Kydd had seen this fabled sea and he looked forward to sharing interesting times ashore with his particular friend, Nicholas Renzi, who was now a master's mate in Glorious.
His gaze shifted to her, a powerful 74-gun ship-of-the-line off to leeward. She was taking in her three topsails simultaneously, probably an officer-of-the-watch exercise, pitting the skills and audacity of one mast against another.
The last day or so they hadbeen running down the latitude of thirty-six north, and Kydd knew they should raise Gibraltar that morning. He glanced forward in expectation. To the east there was a light dun-colored band of haze lying on the horizon, obscuring the transition of sea into sky.
The small squadron began to assume a form of line. Kydd took his position on the quarterdeck, determined not to miss landfall on such an emblem of history. His glance flicked up to the fore masthead lookout -- but this time the man snapped rigid, shading his eyes and looking right ahead. An instant later he leaned down and bawled, "Laaaand ho!"
The master puffed his cheeks in pleasure. Kydd knew it was an easy enough approach, but news of the sighting of land was always a matter of great interest to a ship's company many weeks at sea, and the decks buzzed with comment.
Kydd waited impatiently, but soon it became visible from the decks, a delicate light blue-gray peak, just discernible over the haze. It firmed quickly to a hard blue and, as he watched, it spread. The ships sailed on in the fluky southeasterly, and as they approached, the aspect of the land changed subtly, the length of it beginning to foreshorten. The haze thinned and the land took on individuality.
"Gibraltar!" Kydd breathed. As they neared, the bulking shape grew, reared up far above their masthead with an effortless immensity. Like a crouching lion, it dominated by its mere presence, a majestic, never-to-be-forgotten symbol: the uttermost end of Europe, the finality of a continent.
He looked around; to the south lay Africa, an irregular blue-gray mass across a glittering sea -- there, so close, was an endless desert and the Barbary pirates, then farther south, jungle, elephants and pygmies.
Only two ships. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the sea, Emily Mulvany searched the horizon but could see no more. Admiral Jervis, with his fleet, was in Lisbon, giving heart to the Portuguese, and there were no men-o'-war of significance in Gibraltar. All were hoping for a substantial naval presence in these dreadful times...but she was a daughter of the army and knew nothing of sea strategy. Still, they looked lovely, all sails set like wings on a swan, a long pennant at the masthead of each swirling lazily, a picture of sea grace and beauty.
Flags rose to Glorious's signal halyards. They both altered course in a broad curve toward the far-off anonymous cluster of buildings halfway along at the water's edge. As they did so, the gentle breeze fluttered and died, picked up again, then dropped away to a whisper. Frustrated, Kydd saw why. Even this far out they were in the lee of the great rock in the easterly; high on its summit a ragged scarf of cloud streamed out, darkening the bay beneath for a mile or more. He glanced at the master, who did not appear overly concerned, his arms folded in limitless patience. The captain disappeared below, leaving the deck to the watch. Sails flapped and rustled, slackened gear rattled and knocked, and the ship ghosted in at the pace of a crawling child.
Kydd took the measure of the gigantic rock. It lay almost exactly north and south some two or three miles long, but was observably much narrower. There was a main town low along the flanks to seaward, but few other buildings on the precipitous sides. On its landward end the rock ended abruptly, and Kydd could see the long flat terrain connecting the Rock of Gibraltar to the nondescript mainland.
It wasn't until evening that the frustrating easterly died and a local southerly enabled the two ships to come in with the land. Kydd knew from the charts that this would be Rosia Bay, the home of the navy in Gibraltar. It was a pretty little inlet, well away from the main cluster of buildings farther along. There was the usual elegant, spare stone architecture of a dockyard and, higher, an imposing two-story building that, by its position, could only be the naval hospital.
Rosia Bay opened up, a small mole to the south, the ramparts of a past fortification clear to the north. There, the two ships dropped anchor.
"Do you see..."
Kydd had not noticed Cockburn appear beside him.
"Er, no -- what is it y' sees, Tam?" The neat, almost academic-looking man next to him was Achilles's other master's mate, a long-promoted midshipman without the proper interest to make the vital step of commission as a lieutenant, but who had accepted his situation with philosophic resignation. He and Kydd had become friends.
"We're the only ones," Cockburn said quietly. "The fleet must be in the Med somewhere." Apart from the sturdy sails of dockyard craft and a brig-sloop alongside the mole in a state of disrepair, there were only the exotic lateen sails of Levant traders dotting the sea around the calm of Gibraltar.
"Side!" The burly boatswain raised his silver call. The captain emerged from the cabin spaces, striding purposefully, all aglitter with gold lace, medals and best sword. Respectfully, Kydd and Cockburn joined the line of sideboys at the ship's side. The boatswain raised his call again and as the captain went over the bulwark every man touched his hat and the shriek of the whistle pierced the evening.
The captain safely over the side, the first lieutenant remained at the salute for a moment, then turned to the boatswain. "Stand down the watches. We're out of sea routine now, I believe."
The boatswain's eyebrows raised in surprise. No strict orders to ready the ship for sea again, to store ship, to set right the ravages of their ocean voyage? They would evidently be here for a long time. "An' liberty, sir?" he asked.
"Larbowlines until evening gun." The first lieutenant's words were overheard by a dozen ears, sudden unseen scurries indicating the news was being joyfully spread below.
At the boatswain's uneasy frown, the lieutenant added, "We're due a parcel of men from England, apparently. They can turn to and let our brave tars step off on a well-earned frolic, don't you think?"
Kydd caught an edge of irony in the words, but didn't waste time on reflection. "Been here before?" he asked Cockburn, who was taking in the long sprawl of buildings farther along, the Moorish-looking castle at the other end -- the sheer fascination of the mighty rock.
"Never, I fear," said Cockburn, in his usual quiet way, as he gazed at the spectacle. "But we'll make its acquaintance soon enough."
Kydd noticed with surprise that Glorious, anchored no more than a hundred yards away, was in a state of intense activity. There were victualing hoys and low barges beetling out to the bigger ship-of-the-line, every sign of an outward-bound vessel.
The old fashioned longboat carrying the senior hands ashore was good-natured about diverting, and soon they lay under oars off the side of the powerful man-o'-war, one of a multitude of busy craft.
"Glorious, ahoy!" bawled Kydd. At the deck edge a distracted petty officer appeared and looked down into the boat. "If ye c'n pass th' word f'r Mr. Renzi, I'd be obliged," Kydd hailed. The face disappeared and they waited.
The heat of the day had lessened, but it still drew forth the aromas of a ship long at sea -- sun on tarry timbers, canvas and well-worn decks, an effluvia carrying from the open gunports that was as individual to that ship as the volute carvings at her bow, a compound of bilge, old stores, concentrated humanity and more subtle, unknown odors.
There was movement and a wooden squealing of sheaves, and the gunport lid next to them was triced up. "Dear fellow!" Renzi leaned out, and the longboat eased closer.
Kydd's face broke into an unrestrained grin at the sight of the man with whom he had shared more of life's challenges and rewards than any other. "Nicholas! Should y' wish t' step ashore -- "
"Sadly, brother, I cannot."
It was the same Renzi, the cool, sensitive gaze, the strength of character in the deep lines at each side of his mouth, but Kydd sensed something else, something unsettling.
"We are under sailing orders," Renzi said quietly. The ship was preparing for sea; there could be no risk of men straggling and therefore no liberty. "An alarum of sorts. We go to join Jervis, I believe."
There was a stir of interest in the longboat. "An' where's he at, then?" asked Coxall, gunner's mate and generally declared leader of their jaunt ashore -- he was an old hand and had been to Gibraltar before.
Renzi stared levelly at the horizon, his remote expression causing Kydd further unease. "It seems that there is some -- confusion. I have not heard reliably just where the fleet might be." He turned back to Kydd with a half-smile. "But, then, these are troubling times, my friend, it can mean anything."
A muffled roar inside the dark gundeck took Renzi's attention and he waved apologetically at Kydd before he shouted, "We will meet on our return, dear fellow," then withdrew inboard.
"Rum dos," muttered Coxall, and glared at the duty boat's crew, lazily leaning into their strokes as the boat made its way around the larger mole to the end of the long wall of fortifications. He perked up as they headed toward the shore and a small jetty. "Ragged Staff," he said, his seamed face relaxing into a smile, "where we gets our water afore we goes ter sea."
They clambered out. Like the others Kydd reveled in the solidity of the ground after weeks at sea. The earth was curiously submissive under his feet without the exuberant liveliness of a ship in concord with the sea. Coxall struck out for the large arched gate in the wall and the group followed.
The town quickly engulfed them, and with it the color and sensory richness of the huge sunbaked rock. The passing citizenry were as variegated in appearance as any that Kydd had seen: here was a true crossing place of the world, a nexus for the waves of races, European, Arab, Spanish and others from deeper into this inland sea.
And the smells -- in the narrow streets innumerable mules and donkeys passed by laden with their burdens, the pungency of their droppings competing with the offerings of the shops: smoked herring and dried cod, the cool bacon aroma of salted pigs' trotters and the heady fragrance of cinnamon, cloves, roasting coffee, each adding in the hot dustiness to the interweaving reek.
In only a few minutes they had crossed two streets and were up against the steep rise of the flank of the Rock. Coxall didn't spare them, leading them through the massive Southport gate and on a narrow track up and around the scrubby slopes to a building set on an angled rise. A sudden cool downward draft sent Kydd's jacket aflare and his hat skittering in the dust.
"Scud Hill. We gets ter sink a muzzler 'ere first, wi'out we has t' smell the town," Coxall said. It was a pothouse, but not of a kind that Kydd had seen before. Loosely modeled on an English tavern, it was more open balcony than interior darkness, and rather than high-backed benches there were individual tables with cane chairs.
"A shant o' gatter is jus' what'll set me up prime, like," sighed the lean and careful Tippett, carpenter's mate and Coxall's inseparable companion. They eased into chairs, orienting them to look out over the water, then carefully placed their hats beneath. They were just above Rosia Bay, their two ships neatly at anchor within its arms, while farther down there was a fine vista of the length of the town, all cozy within long lines of fortifications.
The ale was not long in coming -- this establishment was geared for a fleet in port, and in its absence they were virtually on their own, with only one other table occupied.
"Here's ter us, lads!" Coxall declared, and upended his pewter. It was grateful to the senses on the wide balcony, the wind at this height strong and cool, yet the soft warmth of the winter sun gave a welcome laziness to the late afternoon.
Coins were produced for the next round, but Cockburn held up his hand. "I'll round in m' tackle for now." The old 64-gun Achilles had not had one prize to her name in her two years in the Caribbean, while Seaflower cutter had been lucky.
Kydd considered how he could see his friend clear to another without it appearing charity, but before he could say anything, Coxall grunted: "Well, damme, only a Spanish cobb ter me name. Seems yer in luck, yer Scotch shicer, can't let 'em keep m' change."
Cockburn's set face held, then loosened to a smile. "Why, thankee, Eli."
Kydd looked comfortably across his tankard over the steep, sunlit slopes toward the landward end of Gibraltar. The town nestled in a narrow line below, stretching about a mile to where it ceased abruptly at the end of the Rock. The rest of the terrain was bare scrub on precipitous sides. "So this is y'r Gibraltar," he said. "Seems t' me just a mile long an' a half straight up."
"Aye, but it's rare val'ble to us -- Spanish tried ter take it orf us a dozen years or so back, kept at it fer four years, pounded th' place ter pieces they did," Coxall replied, "but we held on b' makin' this one thunderin' great fortress."
"So while we have the place, no one else can," Cockburn mused. "And we come and go as we please, but denying passage to the enemy. Here's to the flag of old England on the Rock for ever."
A murmur of appreciation as they drank was interrupted by the scraping of a chair and a pleasant-faced but tough-looking seaman came across to join them. "Samuel Jones, yeoman outa Loyalty brig."
Tippett motioned at their table, "We're Achilles sixty-four, only this day inward-bound fr'm the Caribbee."
"Saw yez. So ye hasn't the word what's been 'n' happened this side o' the ocean all of a sudden, like." At the expectant silence he went on, "As ye knows -- yer do? -- the Spanish came in wi' the Frogs in October, an' since then..."
Kydd nodded. But his eyes strayed to the point where Gibraltar ended so abruptly; there was Spain, the enemy, just a mile or so beyond -- and always there.
Relishing his moment, Jones asked, "So where's yer Admiral Jervis an' his fleet, then?"
Coxall started to say something, but Jones cut in, "No, mate, he's at Lisbon, is he -- out there." He gestured to the west and the open Atlantic. Leaning forward he pointed in the other direction, into the Mediterranean. "Since December, last month, we had to skin out -- can't hold on. So, mates, there ain't a single English man-o'-war as swims in the whole Mediterranee."
Into the grave silence came Coxall's troubled voice. "Yer means Port Mahon, Leghorn, Naples -- "
"We left 'em all t' the French, cully. I tell yer, there's no English guns any further in than us."
Kydd stared at the table. Evacuation of the Mediterranean? It was inconceivable! The great trade route opened up to the Orient following the loss of the American colonies -- the journeys to the Levant, Egypt and the fabled camel trains to the Red Sea and India, all finished?
"But don't let that worry yez," Jones continued.
"And pray why not?" said Cockburn carefully.
"'Cos there's worse," Jones said softly. The others held still. "Not more'n a coupla weeks ago, we gets word fr'm the north, the inshore frigates off Brest." He paused. "The French -- they're out!" There was a stirring around the table.
"Not yer usual, not a-tall -- this is big, forty sail an' more, seventeen o' the line an' transports, as would be carryin' soldiers an' horses an' all."
He sought out their faces, one by one. "It's a right filthy easterly gale, Colpoys out of it somewhere t' sea, nothin' ter stop 'em. Last seen, they hauls their wind fer the north -- England, lads..."
"They're leaving!" The upstairs maid's excited squeal brought an automatic reproof from Emily, but she hurried nevertheless to the window. White sail blossomed from the largest, which was the Glorious, she had found out. The smaller Achilles, however, showed no signs of moving and lay quietly to her anchor. Emily frowned at this development. With no children to occupy her days, and a husband who worked long hours, she had thrown herself into the social round of Gibraltar. There was to be an assembly soon, and she had had her hopes of the younger ship's officers -- if she could snare a brace, they would serve handsomely to squire the tiresome Elliott sisters.
Then she remembered. It was Letitia who had discovered that in Achilles was the man who had famously rescued Lord Stanhope in a thrilling open-boat voyage after a dreadful hurricane. She racked her brain. Yes, Captain Kydd. She would make sure somehow that he was on the guest list.
The next forenoon the new men came aboard, a dismal shuffle in the Mediterranean sun. They had been landed from the stores transport from England, and their trip across wartime Biscay would not have been pleasant.
Kydd, as mate-of-the-watch, took a grubby paper from the well-seasoned warrant officer and signed for them. He told the wide-eyed duty midshipman to take them below on the first stage of their absorption into the ship's company of Achilles and watched them stumble down the main-hatch. Despite the stout clothing they had been given in the receiving ship in England, they were a dejected and repellent-looking crew.
The warrant officer showed no inclination to leave, and came to stand beside Kydd. "No row guard, then?"
"Is this Spithead?" Kydd retorted. Any half-awake sailor would see that it was futile to get ashore -- the only way out of Gibraltar was in a merchant ship, and they were all under eye not two hundred yards off at the New Mole.
The warrant officer looked at him with a cynical smile. "How long you been outa England?"
"West Indies f'r the last coupla years," Kydd said guardedly.
The man's grunt was dismissive. "Then chalk this in yer log. Times 'r changin', cully, the navy ain't what it was. These 'ere are the best youse are goin' to get, but not a seaman among 'em..." He let the words hang. By law the press-gang could only seize men who "used the sea."
He went on. "Ever hear o' yer Lord Mayor's men? No?" He chuckled harshly. "By Act o' Parlyment, every borough has to send in men, what's their quota, like, no choice -- so who they goin' to send? Good 'uns or what?" He went to the side and spat into the harbor. "No, o' course. They gets rid o' their low shabs, skulkers 'n' dandy prats. Even bales out th' jail. An' then the navy gets 'em."
There seemed no sense in it. The press-gang, however iniquitous, had provided good hands in the past, even in the Caribbean. Why not now? As if in answer, the man went on, "Press is not bringin' 'em in anymore, we got too many ships wantin' crew." He looked sideways at Kydd, and his face darkened. "But this'n! You'll find -- "
Muffled, angry shouts came up from below. The young lieutenant-of-the-watch came forward, frowning at the untoward commotion. "Mr. Kydd, see what the fuss is about, if you please."
Fisticuffs on the gundeck. It was shortly after the noon grog issue, and it was not unknown for men who had somehow got hold of extra drink to run riotous, but unusually this time one of them was Boddy, an able seaman known for his steady reliability out on a yardarm. Kydd did not recognize the other man. Surrounded by sullen sailors, the two were locked in a vicious clinch in the low confines below decks. This was not a simple case of tempers flaring.
"Still!" Kydd roared. The shouts and murmuring died, but the pair continued to grapple, panting in ragged grunts. Kydd himself could not separate them. If a wild blow landed on him, the culprit would face a noose for striking a superior.
A quarter-gunner reached them from aft and, without breaking stride, sliced his fist down between the two. They fell apart, glaring and bloody. The petty officer looked inquiringly at Kydd.
His duty was plain, the pair should be haled to the quarterdeck for punishment, but Kydd felt that his higher duty was to find the cause. "Will, you old haul-bowlings," he said loudly to Boddy, his words carrying to the others, "slinging y' mauley in 'tween decks, it's not like you."
Kydd considered the other man. He had a disquieting habit of inclining his head one way, but sliding his eyes in a different direction; a careful, appraising look so different from the open honesty of a sailor.
"Caught th' prigger firkling me ditty bag," Boddy said thickly. "I'll knock his fuckin' toplights out, the -- "
"Clap a stopper on it," Kydd snapped. It was provocation enough. The ditty bag was where seamen hung their ready-use articles on the ship's side, a small bag with a hole halfway up for convenience. There would be nothing of real value in it, so why --
"I didn't know what it was, in truth." The man's careful words were cool, out of place in a man-o'-war.
Boddy recoiled. "Don't try 'n' flam me, yer shoreside shyster," he snarled.
It might be possible -- these quota men would know nothing of sea life from their short time in the receiving ship in harbor and the stores transport, and be curious about their new quarters. Either way, Kydd realized, there was going to be a hard beat to windward to absorb the likes of these into the seamanlike ship's company that the Achilles had become after her Atlantic passage.
"Stow it," he growled at Boddy. "These grass-combin' buggers have a lot t' learn. Now, ye either lives wi' it or y' bears up f'r the quarterdeck. Yeah?"
Boddy glared for a moment then folded his arms. "Yair, well, he shifts his berth fr'm this mess on any account."
Kydd agreed. It was a seaman's ancient privilege to choose his messmates; he would square it later. There was no need to invoke the formality of ship's discipline for this. He looked meaningfully at the petty officer and returned on deck.
The warrant officer had not left, and after Kydd had reassured the lieutenant-of-the-watch he came across with a knowing swagger. "Jus' makin' the acquaintance of yer Lord Mayor's men, mate?" Kydd glanced at him coldly. "On yer books as volunteers -- and that means each one of 'em gets seventy-pound bounty, spend how they likes..."
"Seventy pounds!" The pay for a good able seaman was less than a shilling a day -- this was four years' pay for a good man. A pressed man got nothing, yet these riffraff...Kydd's face tightened. "I'll see y' over the side," he told the warrant officer gruffly.
At noon Kydd was relieved by Cockburn. The bungling political solution to the manning problem was lowering on the spirit. And Gibraltar was apparently just a garrison town, one big fortified rock and that was all. England was in great peril, and he was doing little more than keeping house in an old, well-worn ship at her long-term moorings.
Kydd didn't feel like going ashore in this mood, but to stay on board was not an attractive proposition, given the discontents simmering below. Perhaps he would take another walk around town. It was an interesting enough place, all things considered.
Satisfied with his appearance, the blue coat of a master's mate with its big buttons, white breeches and waistcoat with cockaded plain black hat, he joined the group at the gangway waiting for their boat ashore. The first lieutenant came up the main-hatch ladder, but he held his hat at his side, the sign that he was off-duty.
"Are you passing through the town?" he asked Kydd pleasantly.
Kydd touched his hat politely. "Aye, sir."
"Then I'd be much obliged if you could leave these two books at the garrison library," he said, and handed over a small parcel.
Kydd established that the library was situated in Main Street, apparently opposite a convent. It didn't take long to find -- Main Street was the central way through the town, and the convent was pointed out to him half-way along its length. To his surprise, it apparently rated a full complement of sentries in ceremonials. There was a giant Union Flag floating haughtily above the building and a sergeant glared at him from the portico. Across the road, as directed, was the garrison library, an unpretentious single building.
It was a quiet morning, and Emily looked around for things to do. On her mind was her planned social event, as always a problem with a never-changing pool of guests. Her brow furrowed at the question of what she would wear. Despite the tropical climate of Gibraltar, she had retained her soft, milky complexion, and at thirty-two, Emily was in the prime of her beauty.
There was a diffident tap on the door. She crossed to her desk to take position and signaled to the diminutive Maltese helper.
It was a navy man; an officer of some kind with an engagingly shy manner that in no way detracted from his good looks. He carried a small parcel.
"Er, can ye tell me, is this th' garrison library, miss?" She didn't recognize him: he must be from the remaining big ship.
"It is," she said primly. A librarian, however amateur, had standards to uphold.
His hat was neatly under his arm, and he proffered the parcel as though it was precious. "The first l'tenant of Achilles asked me t' return these books," he said, with a curious mix of sturdy simplicity and a certain nobility of purpose.
"Thank you, it was kind in you to bring them." She paused, taking in the fine figure he made in his sea uniform; probably in his mid-twenties and, from the strength in his features, she guessed he had seen much of the world.
"Achilles -- from the Caribbean? Then you would know Mr. Kydd -- the famous one who rescued Lord Stanhope and sailed so far in a tiny open boat, with his maid in with them as well."
The young man frowned and hesitated, but his dark eyes held a glint of humor. "Aye, I do -- but it was never th' maid, it was Lady Stanhope's travelin' companion." His glossy dark hair was gathered and pulled back in a clubbed pigtail, and couldn't have been more different from the short, powdered wigs of an army officer.
"You may think me awfully forward, but it would greatly oblige if you could introduce me to him," she dared.
With a shy smile, he said, "Yes, miss. Then might I present m'self? Thomas Kydd, master's mate o' the Achilles."
Copyright © 2003 by Julian Stockwin