Admiralty spies are hunting for British officers and allies trapped on the mainland, among them Ramage's first love, Gianna, the Marchesa di Volterra. Ramage returns to the Tuscan coast, where Bonaparte holds a group of hostages for an unknown fate.
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.
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The Lord Ramage Novels, No. 15
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1986 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
The Atlantic entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar always reminded Ramage of a gigantic funnel lying on its side, its spout pointing towards the Mediterranean and forever replenishing the warm inland sea from the cold ocean. The lower side of the funnel was shaped by the North African coast between Casablanca and Tangier, the upper by the Spanish shore from Cadiz to Tarifa.
However, this present stretch of Spain reaching from off Cadiz down to the actual Strait (which was known to generations of British seamen as "The Gut") brewed the most unpredictable weather in Europe. No, that was not quite fair. Perhaps the Texel, off the north-west corner of the Netherlands, was as bad: sudden and vicious thunderstorms spawned there, too, out of a clear sky.
Anyway, for once the wind taking the Calypso frigate diagonally across the Gulf of Cadiz, from off Faro down to the Strait, was remarkable only for its lightness; light enough to decide him to go in close to Cadiz and then stretch down towards The Gut, giving all his officers (and young Paolo, in particular) a chance to have a good look at this part of the Spanish coast. The coast was guarded by more forts and towers (one every half a dozen miles, it seemed) than anywhere he had ever seen except the Tuscan coast of Italy, which had, coincidentally, belonged to Spain for many years. Obviously the Dons favoured towers.
The light breezes (admittedly from the north, giving the Calypso a soldier's wind and calm sea and ensuring she was not off a lee shore) and a packet of sealed orders (to be opened once past Gibraltar) made him want to attack Cadiz just to placate his impatience.
He glared at Paolo. "Where did Columbus sail from on his third voyage?"
"Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the southern end of those marshes, Las Marismas," the midshipman answered promptly. He pointed eastwards and added, "Just over there, sir."
"Same place, sir."
"And where did the Spanish plate fleets arrive when they bought back the gold and silver from the Main?"
"Same place, sir, but they had to cross the bar and then sail or warp their way more than thirty miles up the River Guadalquivir to Seville, so that the bullion could be inspected by government men and officially weighed and stamped ..."
Ramage nodded and pointed first at the chart spread on the top of the binnacle box and then at the shore, running southeast, five miles away over on the larboard side. "And where are we now?"
"Those low reddish cliffs have the Cortadura Fort at the northern end and the Torre Bermeja at the southern — you can just see the tower."
Ramage nodded and let his thoughts wander. He was looking at the coast of Andalusia. For more than a hundred years (beginning not so long after the Moors were driven out of Spain in 1492) an enormous quantity of gold and silver had poured into Spain from Mexico and Peru, yet a couple of centuries later Spain had nothing to show for it: no splendid palaces or new universities or even towns had been built with the money. No fleet, no army that mattered. The reason was simple enough: Philip II, who had sent the Armada against England (paying for it with the riches from the Spanish Main), and the kings succeeding him, had spent money on armies intended to turn the Protestants of Europe into Catholics, particularly the Netherlanders.
When the navies of France and Britain, the buccaneers, pirates, and the Dutch had managed to prevent the plate fleets reaching Sanlúcar, the Spanish kings had borrowed heavily from the great bankers of Italy and Austria; the Fuggers and the Welsers, the Bardi and the Strozzi had been more than willing to lend — against the security of all the gold and silver of the Indies waiting on the Main to be shipped to Spain.
Then the king (he could not remember which one, but it was soon after Charles II was restored to the English throne) was trapped. His enemies' ships waited to catch the plate fleets at sea, so no bullion arrived in Spain, and with no bullion the king had no money to fit out the plate ships anyway.
Nor did he have the money to pay the bankers' interest on principal, so he defaulted on his debts. And that was how the Habsburgs broke the Fuggers, the enormously powerful family of merchant bankers that had (until it overextended itself with loans to Spain) financed wars, emperors, and nations.
The Calypso's white-haired master, Edward Southwick, stood patiently to one side, recognizing the look on Ramage's face and waiting for him to come back from wherever his thoughts had led him.
He offered Ramage a telescope. "That round tower is the Torre del Puerco, sir, and you can just see the waves breaking on the off-lying reef, Banco de los Marrajos, which is a couple of miles to seaward."
Ramage swept the coast with the glass. "Then there are cliffs and a headland, a small one."
"That's right, sir," Southwick said. "That's Cabo Roche, a good marker for the next reef, which is Lajas de Cabo Roche, three miles offshore."
Ramage walked to the ship's side and looked down at the water, and then aft at the Calypso's wake. "We're making about three knots and there doesn't seem to be much current."
"About a knot, south-going," Southwick said, "but we can expect a couple of knots once we get a few miles past Cabo Trafalgar."
"Not often the current favours us," Ramage commented. He walked over and smoothed down the chart. "Hmm, I could just see the low, reddish cliff beyond Cabo Roche. This is a good chart — where did you get it?"
"Bit o' luck," Southwick admitted. "My old one didn't have many details, but once I heard we'd be bound through The Gut, I saw an old friend o' mine who was the master of the flagship. I remembered he'd been along this coast several times, and he gave me a sight of the chart he'd drawn from three captured Spanish ones so I could copy it."
Ramage ran his finger along the coastline drawn in on the chart and beckoned to Paolo. "Medina Sidonia. What does that name mean to you?"
The young midshipman's brow wrinkled. "Accidente!" he exclaimed, lapsing into Italian. "An old Spanish family. That's all that comes to mind, sir."
Ramage pointed over the larboard bow. "That headland there, Cabo Roche ..."
"North of it you see a few hills, with the mountains behind. Then you come to that sugarloaf (which must be a thousand feet high) and if you had a glass, you'd see a tower on top. That sugarloaf is called Medina Sidonia."
"Indeed, sir," Paolo said politely.
"But that sugarloaf is not the Medina Sidonia I'm referring to. Tell him, Southwick!"
The master grinned sympathetically. The captain often shot questions like this at Midshipman Orsini as part of his self-appointed task of educating the Marchesa di Volterra's nephew and heir.
"Philip II put the Duke of Medina Sidonia in command of the vast Armada he sent against England in 1588, but Drake and gales did for the poor old duke, who knew nothing of the sea and was a coward anyway," Southwick explained.
"This was probably all the duke's land, then," Paolo commented.
"Exactly," Ramage said. "This small section of the Spanish coast, from Sanlúcar southwards, is really Spain's history squeezed into a few miles. The duke led the Armada and was beaten, the plate fleets arriving with the gold and silver later stopped, Spain went broke and has never recovered. ... It's all here. And Medina Sidonia's estates are just inland.
"So now study the chart," Ramage continued. "Get a glass and watch for the towers. If you know which is which, you'll know exactly where we are: they're like beacons all the way along this coast."
For the next couple of hours Paolo alternately bent over the chart and then scowled at the coastline through the telescope, occasionally scribbling a name and time on the slate kept in the drawer of the binnacle box, and careful to add a brief description of each one — the captain was sure to read the daily journal, which all midshipmen were required to keep and which was supposed to form a diary of the voyage, noting particularly anything of navigational interest and importance.
Well, Paolo thought, we passed Cabo Roche a couple of miles back, so that castle must be the Castillo de Sancti Petri. The Medina Sidonia sugarloaf came next, and then the village of Conil, built on a hill sloping back from the coast and easily seen in the glare of the afternoon sun because most of the buildings were white. A cluster of spinning windmills on top of a nearby hill looked, in the distance, like a bunch of flowers. Inland, the bulky Monte de Patria was spotted by a series of towers — Torre La Atalaya, followed by the square-shaped Castilobo, which was hard to see because its grey stone blended with the land behind. Then on a small headland was Nueva, a round tower standing out among the rocks.
As the Calypso sailed south-east along a flat stretch of the coast which ran for five or six miles, blurred by the haze thrown up as the Atlantic slapped the beaches but backed by the line of mountains, blue-grey in the distance, Paolo studied what seemed to be a small island lying just off the coast.
Yet the chart did not show an island and, puzzled, he was just examining it with the glass for what seemed to be the tenth time when Ramage walked over. You look worried."
"That island, sir," he said, gesturing over the larboard bow. "It isn't on the chart!"
"Perhaps it isn't an island ..."
"But ..." Paolo guessed the comment was a hint.
"If you went aloft with the bring-'em-near, the extra height would show that your 'island' is a headland, the end of a long and low sandy spit. Look inland — that flat-topped high ridge running back to the mountains is the Altos de Meca, so ..."
"So that's Cabo Trafalgar, sir!" Paolo exclaimed, the relief very apparent in his voice.
"Exactly, and remember if you pass this way again close inshore, that from the north (and the south, of course) it does look like an island." Ramage bent over the chart. "Yes, there's a very prominent round tower at the seaward end of the Altos de Meca. Not surprisingly it's called the Torre de Meca."
"Trafalgar doesn't seem a very Spanish name," Paolo commented, "especially compared with the towers."
"It's not, and although the English call it TrafALgar with the emphasis on the second syllable, it should be on the third, TrafalGAR, because it's taken from the Moorish name."
"What was its original name, then, sir?"
"Original name? Well, the Romans were probably the first to name it — from memory something like Promontorium Junonis. Then the Moors called it Taraf el gar, which means (so Mr Southwick tells me) 'the promontory of caves.'"
"Are there caves there, sir?"
"Presumably — I've never visited the place. By the way, the chart shows a reef just south of it, the Arrecife de Canaveral, quite apart from these reefs further offshore. Remember that, if you're ever leading a shore party from the south!"
"With all these towers and forts, I'd sooner stay at sea," Paolo said with a grin. "The next tower is only three miles south-east of the cape, Torre del Tajo."
"No, I don't think we shall be visiting Spain on this voyage," Ramage said, and then remembered that until they were off Gibraltar and he could open the sealed orders, he did not know.
At that moment the sails began to flap, and as Ramage swung round to glare at the quartermaster, he saw that the telltales were hanging down: the thin lines on which were threaded corks into which feathers had been stuck, showed that the wind was dying. Damnation, this wasn't the pleasantest of places to be becalmed.
By dawn the fitful wind was just beginning to freshen, and the Calypso, like every one of the King's ships at sea in wartime, greeted the first light of the new day with her ship's company at general quarters: guns loaded and run out, and marines, with their muskets, ready for any enemy emerging from the night.
Ramage stood alone in the darkness at the forward end of the quarterdeck beside the rail, almost overwhelmed with memories.
Entering the Strait (particularly at daybreak) was an exciting experience. It beat the first sighting of the flat eastern coast of Barbados after crossing the Atlantic. It even beat seeing the Lizard again after a couple of years away from England. It was hard to know why the Strait of Gibraltar was different except that there was always the air of mystery. Yes, even now he could hear the distant bray of a donkey away over on the larboard bow — probably its protest at being whacked into activity by its peasant owner. And the smell of pines and woodsmoke and spices borne out to sea by the whiffles of chilly wind tumbling down the mountains and cliffs.
As the sun rose slowly, ready to peer over the mountainous eastern horizon, he could just make out the dark bulk of Spain. There were many more towers along this coast, black fingers jutting up from rocky hilltops. Were the Spanish sentries asleep? Would they soon be passing the word that a British frigate was passing southwards into The Gut? Did they care?
He seemed to have spent all his life in the Mediterranean or the West Indies. He recalled those years ago when he had been the junior lieutenant in a frigate and had ended up, after a disastrous brush with a French ship of the line, as senior surviving officer. He had gone on to rescue Gianna — then known to him as just a name on a list, the Marchesa di Volterra — from (quite literally) under the hooves of Bonaparte's cavalry.
He shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of the idea that in the end it had all proved a waste of time and the wheel had turned a circle: Gianna was even now either dead, a victim of Bonaparte's secret police, or a prisoner. Young Paolo, her nephew, who was now standing down there beside his division of guns, was the only sign that Gianna had ever been part of Ramage's life, and there were even times when his memory refused to summon up her face.
The junior lieutenant had rescued her; the junior post captain commanding a frigate had lost her. Was she dead? If so, then Paolo inherited Volterra, the tiny kingdom in Tuscany which she had ruled and which had been invaded by Bonaparte's Army of Italy.
The Marchesa di Volterra had been (is, he corrected himself hurriedly) tiny, beautiful, imperious, tender, hot-tempered, autocratic, and a dozen other contradictory things. He had loved her (and, he knew, she had loved him), and the years she had lived as a refugee with his mother and father, either down in Cornwall on the St Kew estate or in London, had been happy, except for the powerful sense of duty and obligation she had always felt for her people in Volterra.
No, the two of them could never have married, since she was a Catholic, and always, noblesse oblige, there was the pull of Volterra. So he had failed her in the end: as soon as the Treaty of Amiens had brought peace between Britain and France, she had decided to return to Volterra and her people, even though Ramage and his father had tried to persuade her that the peace would be brief — that it was another of Bonaparte's tricks, and as the ruler of Volterra returning from exile she would be seized or assassinated by the Corsican's men the moment war started again.
Nevertheless, in the company of the British government of the day, she decided that Bonaparte genuinely wanted peace (it was as though she dared not think otherwise) and set out for Volterra while the Admiralty sent Ramage and the Calypso thousands of miles away across the equator on a voyage of exploration.
Yet, as if to compound misery with happiness, Ramage had then met, fallen in love with, and married Sarah, the daughter of the Marquis of Rockley, and the two of them had been on their honeymoon in France when the war began again. After a narrow escape they had reached the Channel Fleet as it arrived to resume the blockade off Brest. Was it so fortunate, though? The Admiral had sent Ramage across the Atlantic and Sarah back to England in a small brig, which had vanished. No one knew to this day whether Sarah and the brig's men had perished in a gale, been killed in a French attack, or captured, so that now they were prisoners.
Excerpted from Ramage's Challenge by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1986 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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