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Ramage & the Renegades
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 12
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1981 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
Ramage lowered the copy of the Morning Post and listened. A carriage was clattering to a stop outside the house and old Hanson, muttering "Coming, my Lord, coming!" as though someone was already hammering impatiently at the door, was shuffling across the hall. Pausing for a moment when he saw Ramage sitting in the drawing-room he called: "The Admiral's back, Master Nicholas!"
Dear old Hanson; for as long as Ramage could remember the butler always muttered "Coming, coming" as he walked across the hall to answer the front door, and at every third step his right hand, with thumb and finger extended, lifted to his face to push his pince-nez back up over the bridge of his nose. It must be a most sensitive nose because Hanson's spectacles rarely slipped right off the tip to dangle from their black cord. Ramage remembered as a boy, fifteen or twenty years ago, watching fascinated as the butler lovingly polished the silver. Would they ... would they ... yes, there — but a quick movement of the right hand would, disappointingly, catch them just in time.
Hanson was always so relieved when any of the family returned home to the house in Palace Street, even after only an hour's absence, as though a social call or a shopping expedition was as dangerous as a foray into dense jungle. On this occasion Ramage's father had been over to Wimpole Street to call on Lord Hood (who, as a characteristically brief note explained, was beneaped in his house with gout). The two old Admirals enjoyed gossiping and discussing foreign affairs, and certainly Bonaparte's latest move must have given them plenty to talk about. Had father been able to learn more than the rumour reported in the newspapers?
Gianna would be pleased the carriage was back: she was anxious to use it to call on her dressmaker. Instead of having the woman visit the house, Gianna wanted to go to her establishment to inspect rolls of materials, and Ramage was hoping his mother would go with her: as the first week of his first leave for nearly two years came to an end, he was at last managing to relax quite happily in an armchair. In a few more days he might agree to plunging into the London social activity, to be shown off by his mother and Gianna, but for the moment (as Gianna had grumbled last night) the bear was happy sleeping at the end of his chain, and would have been much happier to have come back to England and found Gianna and the family staying in Cornwall: Blazey Hall, sitting foursquare among the crags and rolling hills, was always peaceful; the village of St Kew was "home," not London with its noise, smells and crowds.
Yet London this morning was still surprisingly quiet: the hucksters and piemen had not yet reached Palace Street, the air was still and the house seemed glad of the rest. The high ceiling made the room seem larger than it was, and his mother's choice of a very pale grey paint and a blue the shade of ducks' eggs set off the oak panelling. The glass of the diamond panes in the windows showed that Mrs Hanson had kept a close watch on the window cleaner, and the doorknobs shone with a brilliance that would bring an approving nod from most first lieutenants.
He heard the sharp clatter of the carriage steps unfolding. His father said something to the coachman, Albert, and a few moments later was in the hall, with Hanson taking his coat, hat and cane. Both Gianna and Lady Blazey had heard the arrival and were now coming down the stairs, greeting the Admiral. Ramage heard his mother ask if there was anything wrong, and the Earl must have answered with a gesture because she said: "We'll join Nicholas in the drawing-room and you can tell us about it."
Ramage stood up as his mother came into the room, followed by Gianna. The Countess of Blazey, wearing the large amethyst brooch Ramage had given her last week on her 51st birthday (causing her to burst into tears, exclaiming that his unexpected return to Britain and a month's leave was the best present she could have), sat down and said: "Your father is just going to change into some comfortable clothes ... Now, tell us what the newspapers have to say, so we are all prepared for his gossip."
Ramage knew Gianna was becoming excited by the rumours, but both he and his father had discounted them to her; there was no point in letting her build up hopes to have them smashed when it was discovered that the British government was the victim of a spiteful jest by Bonaparte.
"I haven't read The Times yet, but the Morning Post only reports what we've already heard."
"Read it, caro," Gianna said.
"There are a few lines on the front page and I am sure it's just speculation, not based on anything they've been told by the Secretary of State's office."
"Read it, anyway," Gianna said firmly. "This Lord Hawkesbury is still so pleased at finding himself His Majesty's new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that he talks only to the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury."
The Countess laughed. "Surely you hardly expected him to reveal matters of state at last night's ball, my dear? After all, the Duchess of Dorset was standing beside you, and she's a terrible gossip."
"I expect him to provide information for the ruler of a friendly state invaded by Bonaparte. After all, I am the Marchesa di Volterra!"
"Yes, dear," the Countess said, smiling at what she called Gianna's "imperious outbursts," "but if Hawkesbury had any news about Volterra or, indeed, Tuscany or even Italy, he might tell you if you called at his office in Downing Street, or his home in Sackville Street, but hardly at a ball!"
"He did not suggest I call," Gianna said coldly. "Is he one of these new Irish barons? Wasn't he known as 'Jenks'?"
Her tone, Ramage knew, was haughty enough to freeze even the chilly Secretary of State. "He's the son of the Earl of Liverpool. He's also Member of Parliament for Rye and his nickname comes from his family name, Jenkinson."
"This Liverpool — a new creation?"
Ramage laughed and the Countess joined in. "Yes, 'a new creation.' His father received an earldom about five years ago and Jenks has one of his father's courtesy titles. Like me, in fact, except I don't use it."
"I wish you would," Gianna said, beginning to thaw. "You are not ashamed of being the son of the Earl of Blazey, and you inherited one of his titles, so why not use it?"
"Darling, I've told you enough times," Ramage protested. "Admirals with knighthoods don't like having young captains serving under them with titles like 'earl,' or 'viscount.' It can often mean midshipmen and junior post captains have higher precedence at receptions than their commander-in-chief."
The Countess said: "If Nicholas had attended a dinner at which Hawkesbury was present, before he became a minister, Nicholas would have had much higher precedence — if he used his title."
"All the more reason for using it," Gianna said. "Jenks is a cold pudding."
"A cold fish," Ramage corrected.
"Accidente! I always know when I am winning an argument because you begin correcting my English!"
"Nicholas," the Countess reminded him, "you were going to tell us the news in the Post."
"Ah, yes. It says that — well, I'll read the item. 'We understand that M. Louis-Guillaume Otto, the French Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, resident in London, has been a frequent visitor at the office of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs during recent days. It is believed that M. Otto, who has been living in London since the beginning of the present war, has been acting as an envoy of Bonaparte, discussing proposals from Bonaparte for a general peace.
"'We further understand that Lord Hawkesbury has put Bonaparte's proposals before the Cabinet and that Mr Addington has informed the King of the details. We believe Mr Pitt's supporters are violently against a peace. M. Otto can rely on the support of Mr Fox and his faction.
"'M. Otto has had little official work to do for the past two years: so few French ships put to sea that the Royal Navy cannot take many prisoners. On the other hand the bold British ships are constantly attacking the enemy's coasts and ports and naturally some are lost, so the French have many British prisoners in their jails. Unfortunately few can be exchanged because we do not have enough Frenchmen to make the numbers even.'"
Gianna sighed and rearranged the skirt of her pale dress. "Let us hope Bonaparte's terms are generous."
The Countess shook her head disapprovingly. "Gianna, I know you want to go back to Volterra, but don't let us fall into a trap just because we want peace."
"No, Bonaparte would not be offering terms unless it was to his advantage to end the war," Nicholas said.
At that moment the Earl came into the room: a tall, still slim man with silvery white hair and the same thin, almost beak-like nose and high cheekbones of his son. Gianna looked from Nicholas to his father. Yes, she thought, that is how Nicholas will be in thirty years' time. For the first time since she had met him, she felt she could think of him in old age: until now he had been at sea, being wounded regularly once a year, being in action at least once a month ... Peace would mean he could resign his commission and live in London and Cornwall.
And now, also for the first time, she could picture him growing old without her beside him. Until recently, she always thought of their lives after the war as being lived together, but now, after the years she had lived here in England, mostly at St Kew, she accepted that it was impossible. Noblesse oblige. It was a phrase, but for the two of them it was a code, a law — and for her a sentence of eventual banishment.
In the first couple of years, when she thought of little else than Nicholas and returning to rule her kingdom of Volterra the moment Bonaparte's troops were driven out, she had ignored religion. Yet she was Catholic and Nicholas was Protestant. Marriage would force Nicholas to agree that their children would be Catholic, and in turn that would mean one of the oldest earldoms in Britain would become Catholic the moment Nicholas died after inheriting from his father.
The twelfth Earl of Blazey a Catholic ... For the first year or two in England she could see no difficulty about such an old Protestant earldom changing its religion to Rome, but eventually she had come to understand that Britain was built on Protestant foundations, and to ask Nicholas (who would be the eleventh Earl when he inherited from his father) to sacrifice the earldom — for that was how it would be regarded — was something that an enemy might do, but not the woman who loved him.
Her other plans — she saw now they were but dreams — were equally impractical, because of that same phrase. Her idea that Nicholas would resign his commission after the war and come to Volterra as her husband was hopeless, and Nicholas himself had made that clear. Volterra, still turbulent after years of French occupation and no doubt still affected by the talk of French revolutionaries, would be in no mood to accept a straniero as their ruler's husband; not even one who spoke Italian as well as any of them and who had rescued their ruler from Bonaparte's troops. A foreigner was someone from the next state; to some people a man from the next town. She thought that Nicholas might have in mind that she would hand over the kingdom to her heir, her nephew Paolo Orsini, at present serving as a midshipman in Nicholas's own ship but — as she had finally been forced to admit to herself — there were at least two things preventing that. First, Volterra, once liberated, would need a firm ruler for the early years of peace, someone who understood the complicated relations, friendships and enmities of the leading families. Paolo knew nothing of all this, and might well fall victim to an assassin. And secondly, his life was now the sea: it was unlikely he would exchange the Royal Navy for the falsehoods and sycophancy that made up life at Court.
Paolo was a new generation: he had never lived in an atmosphere of noblesse oblige so he would sacrifice nothing for it. For her and Nicholas it was as much a part of life as breathing and, she realized with something approaching bitterness, comparable with breathing: it was always there, unobtrusive, noticeable only when you thought of it, but an essential part of life itself.
Her other dream, after recognizing that the people of Volterra would not accept Nicholas as her husband, was to have Nicholas sent there as His Britannic Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. The ruler could summon the British Ambassador as frequently as she wished. Yet she knew that neither she nor Nicholas could accept such a relationship.
This was all in the past and in the future ... Miserably, knowing she would eventually have to sacrifice her first and probably only real love, she wrenched herself back to the present. She watched Nicholas talking with his mother. The suntan was wearing off, and his brown eyes were just as deeply sunk beneath eyebrows that were like tiny overhanging cliffs, but the lines were going: years of squinting in Tropical and Mediterranean sun, and commanding one of the King's ships in actions that usually resulted in a long despatch in the London Gazette, had left pencil-thin lines on his brow, round his eyes and beside his nose, but they were disappearing as he relaxed here in Palace Street. Nor did he have the worry of the ship: the Calypso was having an extensive refit in drydock at Chatham, and from what he and his father could find out at the Admiralty, he would stay in command when she was commissioned again. Unless ... unless a peace treaty was signed.
Then, she gathered, at least three-quarters of the King's ships would be paid off; the Royal Navy would be reduced to a peacetime size. Admirals, captains, lieutenants — there would be dozens to spare. Nicholas might resign his commission because the routine of commanding a ship in peacetime would be too boring for him after the past years of continuous excitement and action.
Yet Nicholas's mother and father seemed almost hostile to the proposal of peace. No, Gianna corrected herself, not to peace itself but to dealing with Bonaparte. Well, no Tuscan trusted a Corsican, and if she was honest and dispassionate about it she did not trust Bonaparte either: he was the general who led the French army which invaded Volterra. Yet ironically but for Bonaparte she would never have met Nicholas, whose frigate had been sent to rescue her by Sir John Jervis (as he then was, but now Admiral the Earl St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty in the present government). So but for Bonaparte — and St Vincent — they would never have met and fallen in love.
Dreamily she returned to the Palace at Volterra: she pictured herself in the great state room, sitting in the chair reputed to be eight hundred years old. The big double doors would be flung open, His Britannic Majesty's envoy would be announced, and Nicholas in full diplomatic uniform would march in to present his credentials. Both of them would be hard put to keep straight faces ...
She gave a start as the Earl clinked the heavy crystal stopper back into the sherry decanter, walked with his glass to a chair and sat down carefully.
"Hood sends his regards, m'dear," he said to his wife. "Terrible attack of gout; he can't bear anyone within ten feet of him — afraid they'll bump his leg. We were almost hailing each other across the room!"
"I think Gianna is anxious to know if you heard any news of Bonaparte's — er, offer."
"Yes, I did," the Admiral said grimly. "Too much. Hawkesbury called in while Hood and I were talking, and told us about it. The negotiations are nearly complete; Hawkesbury sees this fellow Otto for three or four hours a day and despatches go off to Paris daily — apparently we have Revenue cutters waiting in Dover and they deliver Otto's diplomatic bag in Calais and bring back Bonaparte's instructions."
Excerpted from Ramage & the Renegades by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1981 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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