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Ramage & The Freebooters
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 3
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1969 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
As ramages's carriage rattled along Whitehall he was surprised to see the long and wide street was almost deserted. A file of red-coated soldiers swaggered past the end of Downing Street with the white plumes of their shakos streaming in the wind, boots gleaming black and cross-belts white from carefully applied pipeclay. A brewer's dray drawn by two pairs of horses and heavily laden with hogsheads precariously balanced, pyramid fashion, approached the Admiralty from Charing Cross.
A pieman pushing his handcart, corpulent from tasting his own wares and obviously tipsy from sampling those of a brewer, stopped outside the Banqueting House of Old Whitehall Palace and as he mopped his brow bellowed, "Buy my plum pudden!" A pedlar, sitting astride his spavined horse and trying to persuade the occasional passers-by to look at the remarkable bargains in lace and brocade displayed in his large leather pack, glowered at the pieman and moved on another few yards.
On both sides of the street a few people dodging puddles left by a heavy shower of rain looked from a distance as if they were performing some complicated dance.
Ramage sat back, squashing the upholstery which exhaled a smell of mildew, picked up his cocked hat and jammed it on his head and — as the driver swore at the horses, swinging them over to the middle of the road for the sharp left turn under the narrow archway and into the forecourt of the Admiralty — wished he felt more like the naval officer he was than an errant schoolboy summoned before a wrathful headmaster.
The wheels chattered over the cobblestones before the carriage stopped in front of the four immense columns dominating the main entrance. The carriage door creaked open and a hand pulled the folding steps down. The doorman coming out of the entrance hall as Ramage alighted, stopped when he saw the visitor was a mere lieutenant and went back into the building.
Telling the coachman to wait, Ramage walked up the steps into the spacious entrance hall where a large, six-sided glass lantern hung from the ceiling and his footsteps echoed on the marble floor. On his left the large fireplace was still full of ashes from the night porter's fire and on each side of it were the curious hooded black armchairs which always reminded him of a widow's bonnet.
From one of them a liveried attendant rose with calculated languidness and, in a bored and condescending voice, asked:
"Your business ... sir?"
The "sir" was not an afterthought; from constant practice it was carefully timed to indicate lieutenants were the lowliest of commission officers and that this was the Admiralty, of whose doors the speaker was the lawful guardian.
"To see the First Lord."
"I ... let me look at my list."
Ramage tapped the floor with the scabbard of his dress sword.
The man opened the drawer of a small table and, although the list was obviously the only thing in it, he scrabbled about for some time before taking out a sheet of paper. After glancing at it he looked at Ramage insolently before replacing it and closing the drawer. "You'll have to —"
"I have an appointment," Ramage interrupted.
"Quite ... sir. I'll try to arrange for you to see one of the secretaries. Maybe even this afternoon."
"I have an appointment with Lord Spencer at nine o'clock. Please tell him I'm here."
"Look," sneered the man, all pretense at politeness vanishing, "we get lieutenants in 'ere by the gross, captains by the score and admirals by the dozen, all claiming they've appointments with 'is Lordship. There's only one person on the list to see 'is Lordship this morning and 'e ain't you. You can wait in there" — he pointed at the notorious waiting-room to the left of the main doors — "and I'll see if I can find someone to see you."
Ramage was rubbing the lower of the two scars on his right brow: an unconscious gesture which a few weeks earlier would have warned a whole ship's company that their young Captain was either thinking hard or getting angry.
Suddenly turning to the doorman — who was obviously enjoying the episode — Ramage snapped: "You! Go at once and tell the First Lord that Lord Ramage has arrived for his appointment."
The man was scuttling for the corridor at the far end of the hall before Ramage turned back to the liveried attendant who, by now looking worried and rubbing his hands together like an ingratiating potman, said reproachfully:
"Why, your Lordship, I didn't realize ... You didn't tell me your name!"
"You didn't ask me and you couldn't be bothered to see if I was the person on the list. You merely hinted that a guinea would help arrange for me to see a clerk. Now hold your tongue."
The man was about to say something when he saw Ramage's eyes: dark brown and deep-set under thick eyebrows, they now gleamed with such anger the man was frightened, noticing for the first time the two scars on the lieutenant's brow. One was a white line showing clearly against the tanned skin; the other pink and slightly swollen, obviously the result of a recent wound.
But Ramage was still shaken — as was every other officer in the Royal Navy — by the latest news from Spithead and felt a bitter rage not with the man as an individual but as a spiteful personification of the attitude of many of the Admiralty and Navy Board civilian staff.
By now impatiently pacing up and down the hall, Ramage thought of the dozens of assistant, junior and senior clerks, and the assistant, junior and senior secretaries now working under this very roof, all too many of whom administered the Navy with an impersonal condescension and contempt for both seamen and sea officers amounting at times to callousness.
It was understandable because of the system; but it was also unforgivable. Many — in fact most — of these men owed their timeserving, well-pensioned jobs to the influence of some well-placed relative or friend. They filled in forms, checked and filed reports, and at the drop of a hat rattled off the wording of regulations parrot-fashion, unconcerned that the seaman they might be cheating out of a pension was illiterate and ignorant of his legal rights, or that the captain of a ship of war suddenly ordered to account for the loss of some paltry item might be almost at his wit's end with exhaustion after weeks of keeping a close blockade on some God-forsaken, gale-swept French port.
An inky-fingered clerk was, in his own estimation, far more important than a sea officer; ships and seamen were to him an annoyance he had to suffer. No one ever pointed out that he existed solely to keep the ships at sea, well-found, well-provisioned and manned by healthy and regularly paid seamen. No, to these damned quill-pushers a ship of war was a hole in a gigantic pile of forms and reports lined with wood and filled with convicts.
Most of this shameful business at Spithead was due to men like this, whether a junior clerk at £75 a year humbugging the distraught widow of a seaman killed in battle or a senior secretary at £800 a year ignoring the sea officers and telling ministers what they wanted to hear. The Devil take the —
"My Lord ..."
The porter was trotting alongside him and had obviously been trying to attract Ramage's attention for some moments.
"My Lord, if you'll come this way please."
A few moments later he was ushering Ramage through a door saying, "Would you wait in here, sir: His Lordship will be with you in a few minutes."
As the door closed behind him Ramage realized he was in the Board Room: in here, under the ceiling decorated with heraldic roses picked out in white and gilt, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty sat and deliberated.
Their decisions, jotted down by the Board Secretary on scraps of paper as they were made, resulted in orders being sent out to despatch a fleet half-way round the world to the East Indies, or the 128th captain in the Navy List commanding a frigate off Brest receiving a reprimand for failing to use the prescribed wording when drawing up the report of a survey on a leaking cask of beer.
Large or small, right or wrong, it was here in this room that the decisions were made that governed the activities of more than six hundred of the King's ships whether they were cruising the coast of India or the Spanish Main, blockading Cádiz or acting as guardship at Plymouth. If the ships were the fighting body of the Navy, he reflected, here was its brain, working in a long room which had three tall windows along one wall and was panelled with the same oak used to build the ships.
And Ramage saw it was an impressive room which had absorbed something of the drama and greatness of the decisions Their Lordships had made within its walls during the last five score years or more, sitting at the long, highly-polished table occupying the middle of the room.
The high-backed chair with arms at the far end was obviously the First Lord's, and the pile of paper, quill, silver paper-knife, inkwell and sandbox in front of it indicated he probably used the Board Room as his own office.
Ramage, intrigued by several long cylinders looking like rolled-up white blinds and fitted on to a large panel over the fireplace, walked over and pulled down one of the tassels. It was a chart of the North Sea. A convenient way of stowing them. Then he noticed the whole panel was surrounded by a frieze of very light wood covered with carvings of nautical and medical instruments and symbols of the sea.
The instruments were beautifully carved, standing out in such relief it seemed he could reach up and use any one of them. An azimuth overlapped an astrolabe; a set of shot gauges hung over a pelorus; a cross staff used by the earliest navigators was partly hidden by a miniature cannon. And, emphasizing the importance of good health in a ship, especially on long voyages of discovery, the snakes and winged staff symbol of Aesculapius and a globe of the world.
There was what seemed to be the face of an enormous clock on the wall opposite the First Lord's chair, but instead of two hands it had a single pointer, like a compass needle. Instead of numbers round the edge, there were the points of the compass, while the map of Europe painted on its face had the axle of the pointer exactly where London was.
He saw the pointer was moving slightly, ranging between "SW" and "SW by W." It was the dial that his father had long ago described to him and which, by an ingenious arrangement of rods and wheels, showed the direction the wind on the Admiralty roof was pointing.
And it was very old — that much was clear from the map which showed the North Sea as "The British Ocean." Calais appeared as "Calice" while the Scilly Isles were simply labelled "Silly I."
Each country was indicated by the arms of its royal family, and even a casual glance showed Ramage that some of them had long since vanished, removed from their thrones by death, intrigue, revolution or conquest.
As he reached for his watch he noticed the tall grandfather clock beside the door through which he'd entered. Ten minutes past nine. The figure "17" showed in a small aperture carved in the face — the date, 17 April. Ingenious, yet the clock was obviously very old: the wood was mellow, the metal of the face — which was surrounded by elaborate gilt work — had a rich patina, the mirror on the door was dulled with age, like old men's eyes.
Ramage remembered something his father had told him about the clock: it was made —
Ramage spun round to find Lord Spencer had come through a door at the far end of the room which had been indistinguishable against the panelling.
"Good morning, my Lord."
Ramage shook the proffered hand.
"Your first visit to the Board Room?"
"I guessed as much, though your father knew it well enough. Were you admiring the clock or bemoaning the unpunctuality of the King's ministers?" Spencer asked banteringly.
Ramage grinned. "Admiring, and trying to remember what my father told me about it. And admiring the whole room."
"I love it," Spencer said frankly. "I use it instead of my own office. I'll be your guide before we sit down to settle your business."
The words were spoken lightly, but for Ramage they had an ominous meaning. Certainly the First Lord was being affable enough, but the family had suffered enough at the hands of politicians for him to be wary.
"Let's start with the clock. Made by Langley Bradley, the man who made the one for St Paul's Cathedral. It's been telling the time and date for nearly a hundred years, so the mirror" — he bent down to grimace at his own image — "has reflected every Board meeting since this place was built in 1725.
"These carvings over the fireplace — pearwood, by Grinling Gibbons, as you've probably guessed. He did them in the 1690s and they were probably taken from Wallingford House, which was knocked down to make room for this building.
"And how do you like our wind dial? I can glance up and see if a nice west wind is keeping the French shut up in Brest, or if there's an east wind on which they might slip out. In fact until I became First Lord I never realized what danger an east wind brings to this country, giving every enemy fleet from the Texel to the Cádiz a chance of getting out of port. Or what an ally we have in a west wind, penning them in like sheep!"
Because of his father, Ramage had known the Spencer family since boyhood. Never very well, but enough to allow the First Lord to relax with a lowly lieutenant for a few minutes.
And now he was impressed with the older man's obvious enthusiasm for his job as First Lord of the Admiralty. But for all that he was a politician; any day a Government reshuffle might promote him to some other post or demote him to some well-paid sinecure like the President of the Council for Trade and Plantations. Or to complete eclipse if the Government fell — which he guessed it might do over the Spithead affair. Yet since Spencer was appointed First Lord three years ago he'd become both popular and respected: an unusual combination.
If the Board Room was about seventy-five years old, Ramage reflected, it meant members sitting at that table had given the orders which sent Anson on his great voyage round the world in the Centurion. And Captain Cook on three voyages revealing the extent of the Pacific Ocean. And sent Admiral Byng — much too late and with a small and ill-equipped squadron — to defeat off Minorca. Then, as the resulting public outcry threatened to topple the Government, had obeyed its order to make Byng the scapegoat and brought him to a mockery of a trial which led to him being shot by a firing squad on the quarterdeck of the St George at Portsmouth.
And, he realized with a shock, from here had gone the orders sending his own father to the West Indies in command of a similar squadron in similar circumstances. Following the inevitable defeat, similar orders for a court martial had been given and for similar reasons — though his father had been disgraced as the price of the Government staying in power, not shot ...
Spencer must have read his thoughts because, his face expressionless, he said casually: "Yes, some great and some shameful decisions have been made in this room. I can't claim credit for any of the former nor undo any of the latter."
Ramage nodded, since no answer was needed, but he felt a considerable relief because Spencer had said more than mere words. The trial of Admiral the Earl of Blazey had been a cold-blooded political manoeuvre, but it had also split the Navy.
That had been inevitable because many officers were active in politics or linked by family ties or patronage with leading political figures. They had been quick to strike at the Government of the day through his father — and not a few took advantage of an opportunity to satisfy their jealousy of a young admiral already famous as one of the Navy's leading tacticians. Although several of these men were now dead or superannuated, there were still many in high positions who carried on the vendetta against the Earl's family — helped in turn by the younger officers who looked to them for promotion — and the vendetta had extended to the Earl's son and heir, Ramage himself.
"Sit down — here, in Lord Arden's chair."
Arden, second senior of the Lords Commissioners, sat at the First Lord's left hand.
Excerpted from Ramage & The Freebooters by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1969 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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