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The Ramage Touch
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1979 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
WHEN Ramage eventually succeeded in focusing the night-glass on the two distant ships, because it showed an inverted image they were faintly outlined against the stars and looked like bats hanging side by side and upside down from a beam.
Southwick and Aitken stood beside him at the quarterdeck rail attempting to conceal their impatience. The vessels had been spotted ten minutes earlier by a masthead lookout, who had seen them momentarily against a rising star. The Master was the first to give up trying, "Frigates, are they, sir?"
"Nor ships of the line?" Southwick's voice indicated more hopefulness than fear, even though the Calypso herself was only a frigate.
"No," Ramage said sarcastically, although secretly amused at the old man's pugnacious attitude, which was obviously under a strain because they had been back in the Mediterranean for several days now without firing a gun, except at exercise. "As soon as I identify them, I'll tell you. Or you can take this —" he offered the night-glass, which was the only one left in the ship because the other had been broken within hours of leaving Gibraltar, "and go aloft to look for yourself."
Southwick patted his paunch and grinned in the darkness. "I'll wait, sir. Sorry, but it makes me impatient ..."
"Don't get too excited," Ramage warned. "Although they're damn'd odd-looking ships they're small. And they're steering for the coast."
"You mean we won't catch 'em before they reach it, sir?"
"Not with this whiffling wind. Either they've spotted us and are going to run up on the beach and set themselves on fire because they can't escape, or they haven't and, because they can't make headway against wind and current, have decided to edge in and anchor in the lee of Punta Ala. They can stay there until the wind strengthens, or veers more to the north. In fact, I doubt if they've seen us and are waiting for a veer. They must be as sick as we are of tacking in this light southerly."
Ramage looked up at the sails, great rectangles blotting out whole constellations of stars, but there was so little wind that there was only a slight belly in the canvas. For once he was grateful that for the moment there was not enough chilly down-draught to make him turn up the collar of his boat-cloak. He could see the quartermaster was dancing from one side of the binnacle to the other, watching the luffs, while the men at the wheel felt the ship almost dead in the water.
Once again Ramage steadied his elbows on the rail and once again held his breath to lessen the movement of the glass as he pressed it to his eye. The eastern horizon was jagged with cliffs and hills, black humps and odd shapes that made up this part of the Tuscan coast. Yes, there they were, tiny, angular black bruises against the night sky. The strangest thing was the position of the masts, although their angle made it certain they were steering in for the north side of Punta Ala ... It was no good straining his eyes any longer: at that moment the ships slid into the dark background of the Tuscan hills as though a door had closed behind them. Ramage put the glass in the binnacle box drawer.
"We'll go in after them," Ramage said briskly, explaining that they were out of sight.
"Shall I send the men to quarters, sir?" Aitken asked eagerly, reaching for the speaking-trumpet.
"There's no hurry; it'll take us an hour or more to get within sight of the beach. When is moonrise?"
"Another hour," Southwick said promptly, having just put his watch back in his pocket. "And it'll be a few minutes late by the time it has climbed up from behind those mountains. The — er, those two ships, sir ..."
"The devil only knows," Ramage said. "There are so many odd local rigs out here in the Mediterranean, from caiques to xebecs, that I can't even guess in this light. These two look like ketches, except for the masts: they are set so far aft. The main-mast is where you'd expect the foremast to be stepped; the main looks like a mizen. They seem to have tall rigs considering the lengths of their hulls, and unless the light was playing tricks they have long jib-booms."
"Could they be timber carriers?" It was a sensible question from Southwick because a ship carrying lumber needed long hatches to load decent lengths in the hold.
Ramage shook his head. "Not in the Mediterranean. In the Baltic and North Sea, with long mast timber being moved, yes; but down here the trade is in what the shipwrights call 'short stuff'; larch and the like, and the occasional oak."
"Wine?" Aitken asked, managing to put into the word all the disapproval of a stern Scottish upbringing.
"Neapolitan wine-carriers?" Ramage expanded the question, knowing Aitken was a stranger to the Mediterranean. "Or even olive oil? No, I've been thinking of them but they're beamier; they sit squat in the water like Newcastle colliers and don't have a very high rig. In fact I doubt if they could maintain steerage-way in this breeze."
"They must be transports of some sort," Southwick grumbled, removing his hat and shaking out his flowing white hair as though spinning a dry mop. "Troops, guns, horses, infantry, powder and shot ... The French have to supply the garrisons in Italy."
Ramage had already considered salt fish being brought down from Genoa or Leghorn, and military cargoes that could be travelling up and down the coast. He had a vivid picture of the Calypso frigate boarding one French transport and discovering at the last moment that she had five hundred well-trained troops waiting on board, with another five hundred in the consort coming up to the rescue. Likewise a few broadsides fired at close range into a transport laden with casks of gunpowder might well make a very loud bang that none of them would survive to hear for more than a second.
There was only one way of finding out what it was all about. "Allow a knot and a half of northgoing current," he told Southwick, "and give us a course for Punta Ala. If you don't see those ships bursting into flames before moonrise, you can reckon they're just anchored to wait for a wind veer."
Still thinking of the strange shape of the two ships after they had slid into the shadows, Ramage reflected that every country's coast had its own characteristic smell and noise when approached from seaward at night. With experience you can recognize it. The Italian coastline here just south of Elba was just as he remembered it from three or four years ago — but very different from the West Indies he had just left.
Oddly enough there was not so much physical difference in daylight: the high but rounded, breast-shaped Tuscan hills and more distant mountains, scorched brown by the summer drought and with trees only on the lower slopes, were very similar to those of several West Indian islands. Apart from the startling blue of the Caribbean sea and sky, the Virgin Islands, St Christopher, Nevis, St Bartholomew, St Martin and even Guadeloupe and Martinique, could have been part of Tuscany — except, of course, for the noises and smells.
In Italy the carbonaio was always busy cutting thick shrubs and lopping branches from trees and at night he tamped down his ovens with turf so that random draughts did not make too much heat and burn the wood to ash instead of baking it into charcoal. The smoke coming up from the hummocks, like autumn mist starting in a valley, drifted off to leeward with its own distinctive smell: of neither bonfire nor blaze, open grate nor bushfire. When the offshore breeze came up at night in settled weather the smell of the charcoal burning could be detected many miles out to sea, a signpost pointing homeward for the local fishermen but a warning signal to the unwary navigator. Mingling with it but sweeter yet sharper than the charcoal was the smell of herbs: sage, which covered many of the hills, thyme, rosemary and oregano.
Among the West Indian islands the effect of the Trade winds blowing regularly from the east was that the west side of each island had this almost permanent smell, and it was one which became stronger as you went on shore and entered the little towns: the sellers (usually women) would have their small piles of charcoal under the shade of a big tree. Plump women in colourful but never garish dresses, chattering with each other in shrill voices, occasionally quarrelling but mostly laughing, eager to tease a bargain-hunting buyer who went to a rival.
Ramage shivered in the darkness. Smell, noise — and temperature. If you had been serving on the stormy Channel Station for a few years, a move to the Mediterranean seemed blissful because (apart from a few weeks in midwinter) it was so much warmer. Then you went to the Tropics and for the first few weeks the heat seemed stifling, damp and draining off one's energy. Soon you learned tricks like always standing in the shade when the sun was at its zenith, and you discovered the cooling breeze of the Trade winds, so that you became accustomed to it. No doubt soldiers on duty inland found it scorching for an hour either side of noon but, to a sailor in a ship anchored in a quiet bay, places like the West Indian islands seemed to have the perfect climate.
The Caribbean climate was perfect, Ramage thought, and there had been no pleasure leaving the Tropics this time, particularly because the Calypso was not bound for home. As the frigate sailed north from Tortola, heading for Bermuda, which was one of the first stepping stones across the Atlantic going eastward towards Gibraltar, the temperature had dropped one degree for every degree of latitude made good northward. He had been thankful when they sighted the Azores and began the long final sweep that would take them down into the Gut, as the Strait of Gibraltar was always known to the Navy.
He pulled his boat-cloak round him and with another shiver unconnected with temperature realized how a fox must feel as it paused to watch the pack of hounds sniffing the air, seeking its scent, because those two black shapes he had been watching could be a trap. They could be two hens waiting to be snapped up; they could also be two Trojan horses. All he could do was close with them and hope that sharp eyes and the night-glass would give him enough warning. After all, he told himself sharply, that was why he was here, one of the few King's ships now in a Mediterranean from which the Navy, stretched beyond its capacity, had almost completely withdrawn its strength which was needed more urgently from Brest to the Texel, from Jamaica to the Skaw. The Navy's task of blockading the French was like a cooper trying to prevent an old cask from leaking: no sooner was one leak stopped up with a small blockading force than another was spotted.
Of course, that was one of the reasons why their Lordships in their wisdom had sent off orders from the Admiralty saying that the Calypso was to leave the West Indies "and make the best of her way" to Gibraltar (a time-honoured phrase). At Gibraltar, Ramage had found fresh instructions waiting for him — he was to provision for four months and enter the Mediterranean. The instructions went on in immaculate copperplate for several pages, but boiled down to the fact that Ramage was being sent into the Mediterranean with the Calypso for four months to create as much havoc as he could along the French and Italian coasts, disrupting shipping, transport, communications ...
Ramage was at first hard put to know why he and the Calypso had been chosen: it was unlikely that their Lordships were concerned that he spoke French and Italian fluently and sufficient Spanish. Perhaps they remembered that he knew the Italian coast very well — but their Lordships rarely bothered themselves with such considerations, reckoning that any officer with a decent chart was as well off as someone who had sailed the coast a hundred times. Or — and he guessed this was the real reason — they wanted a former French frigate.
The Calypso was French-built, with a distinctive French sheer and the French cut of sails. With French colours hoisted, a French sailor fifty yards away would not know that the British now owned her. She could pass through a French fleet without arousing suspicion; she could sail into a French-held port and anchor and no one would think anything of it, recognizing the cut of her sails. Signals would be no problem because Ramage had recently captured another French ship and secured a copy of the latest French signal book.
Ramage had captured the Calypso frigate, making her present ship's company (most of whom had sailed with him for two or three years and more) comparatively wealthy, thanks to the prize-money. It was appropriate therefore that he should command her for this freebooting expedition into the Mediterranean, although their Lordships would never let any sentimental considerations affect their decision. In fact, he guessed as he held his cloak closer round him, the answer was probably that they could take a frigate away from the commander-in-chief at Jamaica without too much fuss (admirals always let out a howl of dismay when they lost a frigate) because the Calypso, being a recent capture, was an extra, a consolation prize. If the commander-in-chief grumbled, the Admiralty could quite reasonably reply that he still had the usual number of frigates.
Slowly, as the Calypso steered inshore, a dark headland which he could just make out to the south divided into four sections. The eastern one was Punta Ala itself, and the three smaller were the islets extending westwards, as though a giant had rolled three great boulders off the end of the peninsula. The Calypso had sailed in just far enough to reveal the gaps between them.
A figure approached him in the darkness, padding along the deck like a tame bear. He recognized the bulky shape of Southwick, the Calypso's Master.
"The islands have just opened up, sir," he said.
"Yes, I saw them."
"The moon should be up in twenty minutes or so. In fact I'm sure I can see a hint of it behind the mountains."
"Yes," Ramage said, lifting his night-glass again. "I can just about make out Monte Amiata over there. It's three or four thousand feet high and must be thirty miles inland of us."
Southwick gave a characteristic sniff. He had various sorts which described different attitudes and each of which, for anyone who knew him well, represented a whole sentence, sometimes a paragraph. Ramage recognized this one as a prelude to a nostalgic remark; even the preliminary to some sentimental reminiscence. Southwick, well into his sixties, was tending to become more sentimental as the years passed, and a return to somewhere like the Tuscan coast was sure to stir up old memories.
"Deck there! Foremast here!" came a hail from aloft.
"Deck here!" Southwick shouted back, before he had time to make his remark, and Ramage was thankful he had kept a couple of lookouts aloft throughout the night, though it was customary to bring them down at nightfall and station them round the deck with more men, six pairs of eyes searching the darkness for enemy ships (there was little chance of sighting a friendly one) or breakers on a shoreline.
"I think I can make out two ships anchored in the lee of that headland, sir."
"Very well — someone'll be up with a bring-'em-near." Ramage realized that he was mellowing; a couple of years ago he would have reprimanded a man for the "I think," telling him either he could or he could not.
The Master looked round and an American seaman, Thomas Jackson, seemed to materialize from the darkness. Ramage held out the night-glass. "Aloft, m'lad; you know what to look for."
He then murmured to Aitken: "Send the men to quarters — but do it quietly."
The usual beat of drum would carry for miles on a quiet night like this and the regular "Heart of Oak" could hardly be mistaken for a French Revolutionary song.
"Guns run out, sir?"
"No, loaded but don't trice up the port lids."
Ramage was not quite sure why he wanted the port lids left down. A vague idea was lurking in the back of his mind, like a half-remembered dream, so vague that he knew there was no point in trying to hurry it out.
"Quarterdeck — masthead!"
It was Jackson's voice and Southwick answered.
"Two ships, sir: both anchored close inshore, just a few hundred yards from the beach."
"North or south side of the headland?" Ramage asked. The little castle of La Rocchette stood on another small headland to the south and the French might have a garrison there and a few guns. If the ships were lying on the north side of Punta Ala then the headland itself hid them from La Rocchette.
Excerpted from The Ramage Touch by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1979 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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