Barbary Coast pirates—the Saraceni—are capturing slaves and terrorizing fishing villages along the coast of Sicily. Ramage and his crew are sent to track them down before they can devastate another town.
About the Author
Dudley Pope, a naval defense correspondent of the London Evening News, progressed to writing carefully researched naval history. C.S. Forester urged Pope to try his hand at fiction and saw the younger writer as his literary heir. Pope began what was to become an impressive series with Ramage (1965) and, over the next 24 years, produced 17 more novels tracing Lord Ramage's career. Pope died in 1997.
Read an Excerpt
Ramage & the Saracens
The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 17
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1988 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
Southwick counted the pieces of salt beef as the cook's mate lifted them out of the cask, banging each piece before he removed it to shake off the encrusted salt. Each piece of meat was as dark as old varnish and the salt was stained like muddy sand.
It would take many hours of soaking in fresh water in the steep tub to dissolve that hardened salt, the master thought to himself, and a lot of boiling afterwards before the men could get their teeth into the meat.
This cask was full of old meat: from the look of it many months had passed — even a year or more — since the carcass had been cut up in the contractor's slaughterhouse and salted down in the cask. Still, it was not as bad as some he had seen in the old days, before the Great Mutiny had led to an improvement. Then it was not unusual to find meat so hard it could be carved, looking rather like mahogany.
He continued marking the slate and looked at the side of the cask on which was stencilled the legend "54 pieces." Well, it might contain fifty-four pieces; it was not entirely unknown for the number of pieces to match what the contractor had painted on the outside, but it was rare, and the discrepancy was always on the side of the contractor.
Southwick, like every other master in the king's service doing this particular job, had to note the difference in his log, and as the cook's mate finally lifted out the last piece and Southwick looked at the tally on the slate, he could see they were fortunate: the log entry would simply say: "Opened cask of beef, marked 54 pieces, contained 52."
In theory the Navy Board claimed back from the contractor the value of the difference, but Southwick wondered if they ever did.
The seamen were cheated by the dishonest contractors, not the Navy Board: the clerks at the Navy Board had their dinner whether or not a cask was missing several pieces of meat. It was only the seamen who went without: a ship was issued with so many casks of salt beef and salt pork for a commission or voyage, and that was that: the men just had to make it last.
With the last piece taken from the cask, Southwick said: "Very well, get all this into the steep tub," gesturing at the pile of meat, most of which seemed to him to be fat or bone, and he turned to go below to make the entry in his log.
Captain Ramage, standing at the forward end of the quarterdeck, asked: "Short again?"
"Only two pieces, sir," Southwick said, adding gloomily: "The Navy Board seems to have been getting rid of some old stock: looked more like off-cuts of mahogany from the carpenter's shop than salt beef."
Ramage nodded and noted that they were lucky: it was usual for there to be half a dozen pieces missing, or even more, and much of the meat comprised chunks of fat which, when the meat was put in the coppers to cook, would float on top of the boiling water, to be skimmed off by the cook's mate and sold illicitly to the men as "slush," providing something to spread on their hard biscuits and giving the cook's mate the nickname of "Slushy." Did the cook demand his share of the proceeds?
Ramage shrugged his shoulders and found he did not care: it was a fine day with a brisk wind, just enough to raise a few white horses and the Mediterranean was unbelievably blue, as though welcoming back the Calypso after the spell in the Atlantic.
How many times had he passed through the Strait of Gibraltar up to now? A score of times? Anyway, Europa Point was a familiar enough landmark, and now the men would be commenting on being "Black Strapped," their description of being in the Mediterranean and deriving either from Black Strap Bay, on the eastern side of Gibraltar, or from the coarse Spanish red wine which would soon take the place of their rum issue, and which was not very popular.
The Calypso stretched along under all working sail, pitching slightly in the head sea, as though curtsying. Each pitch brought a slight groan from masts and yards, as though they were protesting; every now and again the sails slatted as an unusual wave made the ship pitch more than usual, spilling the wind momentarily and then letting the sails fill again with a bang.
A sudden shout of "Deck there!" from the foremasthead sent the red-headed second lieutenant, Kenton, lunging for the speaking-trumpet and shouting up an acknowledgement.
"Sail two points on the larboard bow, sir!" shouted down the lookout.
Kenton turned to Ramage, to make sure he had heard.
Ramage nodded. "How far off?"
Kenton's hail brought the answer of eight or ten miles.
Without bothering about a cast of the log, Ramage estimated the Calypso was making about seven knots. He took out his watch. It would soon be noon. "Pass the word to Mr Aitken not to secure the guns," he said. For the past hour the men had been busy at gunnery practice: without actually firing, they had been loading, running out, and pretending to fire the guns, the sharp cries and the rumbling of the trucks punctuating the lazy noise of the Calypso's progress.
A sail in sight: in this position and at this time it was routine: probably another frigate bound for Gibraltar from Malta or Naples, or even an Algerine: they sneaked out of the Barbary Coast ports to see what they could pick up — just pirates. The chance of the sail being French was slight: they were still licking their wounds after Trafalgar. He corrected himself: at Trafalgar they had lost many ships of the line, not frigates, so in theory the sail in sight ahead could be a French frigate, but it was not likely. The defeat of the French at Trafalgar had been a blow to their confidence as much as to the total number of ships they had: it would probably be many months before they ventured to sea again.
"Deck there, fore-topmast here: there are two sail!"
Kenton answered the hail and Ramage thought: two sail meant even less chance of them being French. But soon the men would be sent to quarters, because in wartime every sail had to be treated as potentially an enemy, to be met with guns run out and a hoist of flags challenging her to reveal her identity.
Ramage realized that he could not remember the secret signal for the day and went below to his cabin, unlocking a drawer in his desk to look it up.
The secret signal comprised a table lasting three months which set out the challenge and the correct reply for each day. The table was issued by the commander-in-chief and applied only to the area he commanded. It was without doubt the most secret thing on board the ship: the penalty for allowing it to fall into enemy hands was a court martial to begin with, and no captain of a ship could expect any mercy from the court: that was made more than clear in the preamble to the signals.
The secret signal and the ship's number in the List of the Navy — they were the flags to be hoisted as soon as a strange ship was close enough to distinguish them. Unless one recognized the other ship it was always a slightly tense moment: from the very first day when one went to sea as a midshipman, one was brought up to consider every strange sail as potentially an enemy. And for most of the years since then at least half the time it usually was. He put the signals away and went back on deck.
Southwick came up the quarterdeck ladder. "A couple of sail, eh? Getting like Spithead round here!"
"Probably a couple of frigates bound for Gibraltar," Ramage said. "Or even a couple of our merchantmen with olive oil and wine."
"Could be," Southwick agreed. "It's safe enough now for them to risk sailing without a convoy."
No convoys, no escorts, Southwick thought. Escorting convoys was the dreariest job that could be given to a frigate, and it was a sign of the times that the Calypso had been sent out to the Mediterranean alone: until quite recently, almost any frigate bound for the Mediterranean from England would have to escort merchant ships; there were usually enough of them waiting to sail to make up a convoy, even if only comprising half a dozen ships. Yet, Southwick reflected, it did not matter whether there were half a dozen or the hundred more usual to or from the West Indies, there was always at least one ship that was a veritable mule, always reducing sail at night and falling behind, no matter what threats were made.
Ramage picked up his telescope and looked at the two tiny specks now coming into sight over the curvature of the earth. He calculated they were not on an opposing course, which was strange: they should be steering the reciprocal of the Calypso's course if they were bound for Gibraltar, since she had left there not long since. No, the two ships were steering more to the northwest: that much was clear from the line of their masts. Perhaps they had a different slant of wind over there, though that would not account for the course they were steering, only the trim of their sails.
Their course, he thought idly, seemed too far to the northwest for any ship not bound for Toulon! But there could be several explanations — they could be British frigates investigating a strange sail out of sight from the Calypso. But even as he watched, both ships began to alter course, coming round to larboard so that they would meet the Calypso.
"Pass the word for Orsini," Ramage told Kenton, "and then send him aloft with a bring-'em-near: I'm beginning to doubt if those two are frigates."
Ships of the line usually meant problems: either one of them carried an admiral who wanted to give fresh orders, or the senior of the two captains had some task to be carried out. Well, Ramage thought grimly, he was sailing under Admiralty orders, which should make him proof against being humbugged about by any passing senior officers.
He watched Orsini arrive on the quarterdeck, collect a telescope and jump up into the ratlines in a smooth scramble aloft. If Gianna could see her nephew now, he mused. That was a big "if," since it was by no means certain that she was still alive.
How the years passed. In many ways it seemed no time ago that he had rescued the young and vulnerable Marchesa di Volterra from the beaches of Tuscany, snatching her (with the help of the seaman Jackson) from under the feet of Napoleon's cavalry. It seemed no time at all that he had fallen in love with her (thought he had fallen in love with her, he corrected himself) and back in England the refugee marchesa had gone to live with his parents. And then later her nephew had escaped from Volterra, a lively lad who had wanted to join the Navy and, at Gianna's request, Paolo Orsini had come to the Calypso as a midshipman and quickly learned seamanship and become a popular young officer.
And then ... and then had come the peace following the Treaty of Amiens, and Gianna had decided that she must return to her kingdom of Volterra. His father and he had argued with her, warning her that she would be at risk from Napoleon's assassins, and that the peace would not last. But she would not listen and she had left London for Paris, on her way to Italy. They had heard nothing more of her, and in the meantime Ramage had met and married Sarah, now his wife. Gianna was an ever-fading memory, jogged into existence again whenever he looked at Paolo and remembered. As he had just done. But memories of Gianna were fading, of that there was no doubt; he had difficulty in recalling the details of her face; all that remained was a picture of her personality: lively, at times imperious, warm yet hot-tempered, but for all that very much the ruler of the kingdom of Volterra which, small on the map, yet loomed large in the life of the young girl who — until Napoleon's Army of Italy drove her out — was its sole ruler.
He put the telescope back to his eye. What a long string of memories had been called up by watching Paolo climbing the rigging. How different was Sarah, the wife he had left in England.
It was strange how the Calypso's ship's company knew both women so well. Gianna because many of them had helped rescue her and been on board the ship that took her back to England; and Sarah for a similar reason, only this time the rescue had been from an island off the coast of Brazil.
Yes, those two sail had hauled their wind to meet him, and he was sure they were not frigates: more like ships of the line. A couple of ships making their way from Naples to Gibraltar — or through the Gut on their way to England — would be nothing out of the ordinary; in fact it would be a commonplace, a one-line entry in his journal, merely noting the date, time and names of the ships.
Orsini hailed from the masthead and Kenton snatched up the speaking-trumpet to reply. The two sail, Paolo reported, were ships of the line and they had come round on to opposing courses. Their hulls were still below the horizon so it was impossible to identify them.
"Tell him to keep a sharp lookout," Ramage said without thinking.
Paolo of all people would keep a sharp lookout. His hatred of the French would make sure of that. Ever since the end of the brief peace following the Treaty of Amiens, when his aunt had vanished and it seemed only logical to suppose that she had either been murdered by Napoleon's men or imprisoned, he had added bitterness to his hatred. No Frenchman, Ramage suspected, should ever ask Paolo for quarter.
Down at one of the forward guns on the starboard side a group of seamen gossiped, having completed the morning's exercises and expecting any minute to get the order to run the gun in and secure it. They had heard the lookout's hail and Midshipman Orsini's report; they knew that now they would have to wait until the two ships were close enough to answer the challenge.
"We seem to spend 'arf our life waitin'," growled Stafford, a Cockney seaman. "Ships of the line — must be ours: stands to reason, after Trafalgar."
"It'll take more than Trafalgar to change the rules," said Jackson. "We didn't sink every French ship of the line, you know."
"The way Staff tells the story, we did!" said Rossi, the Italian from Genoa. "Not one escaped!"
"We didn't do too badly," Stafford said complacently. "A few frigates got away, but they'll be too scared to come out for months."
He spoke without considering that the other four of the gun's crew were French, Royalists who had signed on in the Royal Navy after helping Ramage and his wife Sarah escape from France when war had broken out again.
"Don't underestimate Napoleon," said one of the men.
"Boney wasn't at Trafalgar, Louis," Stafford said contemptuously. "Pity 'e wasn't; we'd have taken him prisoner and led 'im up Ludgate 'ill with a chain round 'is neck and 'anded 'im over to the Lord Mayor."
"He's cunning," Louis persisted. "See how he has gone off to attack Russia ..."
"Well, he don't need a navy to attack them, I must say," Stafford admitted.
"And it means he has time to rebuild his navy," Louis insisted.
"He ain't got much time," Stafford said emphatically. "Yer can't build a ship of the line in six months, 'specially if you ain't got no wood to speak of, and we know 'e ain't."
"He's got enough wood to repair those ships we knocked about," Jackson said. "Patch 'em up and send 'em to sea to interfere with our shipping — that would soon have us hopping about."
"I don't see why," Stafford said stubbornly.
"Use your head," Jackson said sharply. "A ship of the line at sea on the loose means at least one of our ships of the line finding her. And it means a dozen or more looking for her. Don't think it'd be a question of sending out a frigate or two ..."
"All right, all right, I get your point," Stafford conceded. "But I presume Their Lordships will be keepin' a blockade on places like Brest, Lorient, Cadiz, and Toulon."
"And Ferrol and Cartagena ... You forget the Dons have more ports than the French — as many, anyway. And to prevent one ship slipping out on a dark night it has to be a tight blockade."
"Frigates," Louis said unexpectedly. "Supposing the French turned loose all their frigates to raid convoys. Don't forget we rarely have more than a couple of frigates escorting the big West Indian convoys — just imagine three French frigates attacking ..."
"The way you all tell it, we won Trafalgar and lost the war," Stafford grumbled.
"No, nothing like that," Jackson said placatingly. "We're only saying don't expect we won't see another French sail at sea."
"You'll be saying next that these two up ahead are French and steering down to sink us," Stafford retorted.
Excerpted from Ramage & the Saracens by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1988 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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