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The West Indian bases are desperate: post vesselsa vital communications link between England and the West Indies in the war against Franceare mysteriously disappearing and no packets have arrived with orders in months. Were the privateers out in full force again? Had Napoleon's navy a secret new weapon? Lieutenant Lord Nicholas Ramage sets out from Jamaica to discover what treachery is threatening to throw the British navy into chaos.
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
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1974 The Ramage Company Limited
All rights reserved.
REGULAR sleep had been impossible in the hot and windless night so typical of the hurricane season in Jamaica: the occasional slight zephyr venturing in through the window rarely had enough energy to penetrate the mosquito net and cool him. After a night when every brief doze drifted him into a wild dream, Ramage sat at the breakfast table feeling as limp as damp laundry, sipping coffee and squinting at the reality of the harsh sun reflecting into the hotel dining-room despite a latticed jalousie over each window.
He took a letter from his pocket and read it for the fifth or sixth time since a special messenger had delivered it the previous evening. Addressed to "Lieutenant Ramage, at the Royal Albion Hotel," it was signed "Pilcher Skinner," and beneath the hurried scrawl a clerk had written, "Knight, Vice-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's ships and vessels ... upon the Jamaica Station."
The wording of the letter was straightforward enough, and many a young lieutenant losing his command after a hurricane ripped the masts out of his ship and drifted her up on a coral reef would have been glad to receive it. But Ramage knew that Vice-Admiral Sir Pilcher Skinner was far from being a straightforward man.
To begin with, the document was a letter, not a set of orders: in effect Sir Pilcher was making him an offer. But, he mused suspiciously, admirals do not make offers to lowly lieutenants — particularly not to one newly arrived in Jamaica, and whose first official duty had been to report the loss of his ship. Apart from that, every Commander-in-Chief has his circle of favourites: young lieutenants and captains who have been serving with him for some time, and look to him for patronage, promotion and fortune.
On the Jamaica Station — notoriously the most unhealthy in the Service, where an officer bright and healthy at sunrise can be dead from the black vomit by sunset — promotion is rapid. The funeral of a young frigate captain means a favoured lieutenant is promoted and given his first command. In turn, favoured frigate captains are sent cruising in areas off Hispaniola and the Spanish Main where they are most likely to find French and Spanish merchantmen, prizes that enrich both the captains and the Commander-in-Chief, who receives a regular percentage of the prize money.
Frigate captains out of favour — or not known to the Commander-in-Chief, which for practical purposes meant the same thing and included those recent arrivals who had escorted convoys out from the United Kingdom — can expect only more convoy duty, the dreariest work in the Navy and far removed from any chance of prizes or promotion.
For what it was worth, Ramage thought ruefully, he fitted into a very special category which ensured that he would never be included in Sir Pilcher's favoured circle. To begin with Ramage's father, Admiral the Earl of Blazey, had been one of the most brilliant officers in the Navy — until a frightened government made him the scapegoat for their own stupidity. Sir Pilcher dabbled in politics, and his party supported the Government, with the result that Sir Pilcher had all the wariness of politics and politicians, of someone who understood neither but hoped to profit from both. Apart from that, in late middle age, Sir Pilcher was still only a member of the lowest order of knighthood, and it was common knowledge that he thirsted for a peerage — yet that was something that would forever evade him since it was rarely bestowed on a naval officer, and then only on a commander-in-chief following a very successful fleet action. Not even the most sycophantic officer in Sir Pilcher's circle could visualize that ever happening. But, even worse, he knew Ramage not only had a title, but made a point of never using it in the Service. Ramage guessed it must irk Sir Pilcher to know that letters such as the one he was now holding should, strictly speaking, be addressed to "Lieutenant Lord Ramage."
Any one of these things, Ramage knew only too well, was enough to make him out of favour; but the last straw for Sir Pilcher was probably the fact that Ramage had come out to the Caribbean originally in command of a brig acting under the direct and secret orders of the First Lord of the Admiralty. A man with Sir Pilcher's nature would always be suspicious that hidden influences were at work.
Ramage glanced up at the tall, casually debonair man joining him at the table.
"Morning — you're up early. Couldn't you sleep?"
"Those damned mosquitoes," Sidney Yorke said viciously. "They must have found a hole in my mosquito net. I can still hear them whining in my ears. Just look!"
He showed wrists red and swollen from bites. "My ankles are the same."
"You shouldn't scratch them," Ramage said unsympathetically. "And get yourself a new mosquito net."
Yorke looked up at the coloured waiter. "Ah, there you are, Albert. Just a pot of your excellent coffee, please, and some toast. Dry toast. No, I haven't been drinking," he assured the startled man. He turned to Ramage and pointed at the letter.
"From the large and impressive seal, I don't imagine that's a love letter."
"It's been a long time since Sir Pilcher wrote a love letter."
Yorke nodded and, since Ramage obviously did not want to discuss it, changed the subject. "I've been inquiring about getting a passage back to England. Not too hopeful, though; there's no convoy for at least two months."
Ramage laughed. "There's something ironic about a shipowner being stranded in Jamaica for the lack of a ship!"
"Since I lost mine as a result of the same hurricane that put your ship up on the same reef, you might be a bit more sympathetic," Yorke protested amiably.
"You own five more ships — why not wait until one comes in and take over command of her? Pension off the master, or give him leave until the underwriters pay up and you can build a replacement!"
"Drink your coffee. The shipyards are on the Thames and I'm in Jamaica. A small point but relevant ... Who is likely to have any influence with the Post Office?"
Ramage shrugged his shoulders. "Are you thinking of trying to get a berth in a Post Office packet?"
"Only as a last resort."
"You've heard the news then?"
"I've heard that in the last few months most of the packets have been captured on their way back to England, and the Jamaica merchants are angry and frightened."
"Not only the merchants," Ramage said, tapping the letter beside him on the table.
Yorke sniffed contemptuously. "Perhaps if the Commander-in-Chief showed more interest, his frigates would catch these damned French privateers before they catch the Post Office packets, and honest citizens like myself could get home again. You'll be going back in a frigate, I suppose," Yorke said casually.
Ramage shook his head. "If I go, I'll probably be keeping you company. In fact, you'd better try for berths for both of us. And for Southwick and Bowen."
"Oh, I thought Sir Pilcher would be keeping you out here. And can't he find employment for a master and a surgeon?"
Ramage glanced up at the approaching waiter and Yorke waited until the man had set out his breakfast and departed before continuing. "I assumed you'd be staying here under Sir Pilcher's orders."
"I think the Admiral is already short of appointments for his own people."
"Which is a tactful way of saying that you know he's damned if he's going to deprive one of his favourites to give you a job?"
"He wouldn't phrase it so crudely. On the other hand he might find an unpleasant job that has to be done, and give it to me to avoid making one of his people unhappy."
After glancing at the folded letter, Yorke busied himself with his coffee and toast. He could see that whatever Sir Pilcher's letter said, Ramage was worried about it: that much was obvious. Yorke knew they had been through too much together in the past few months for Ramage to be unnecessarily secretive.
Slowly it dawned on him why he was in no hurry to arrange a passage back to England. He had spent the early years of his life at sea in one or other of the ships owned by his grandfather, and eventually commanded one of them. He'd realized later that the old man, a tyrant by anyone's standards, had given him command only when convinced that his grandson had nothing more to learn from any of the other masters; more knowledge of ships and the sea would come only from experience. So a year in command had been followed by a couple of years in the London office, learning the details of the business life of the shipowner, as opposed to the shipmaster. At the time Yorke had resented it all, but the old man had had a reason; a reason he had kept silent about even on his deathbed. It was only when the lawyers read his will that Yorke learnt that the whole fleet had been left to him: six well-found ships ...
But Yorke had found the life of a rich young shipowner in London boring: mornings and afternoons spent in Leadenhall Street; the evenings a seemingly endless round of soirées and balls, where he had constantly to fend off the attentions of anxious mothers who regarded him as a good catch for their daughters. So he had gone back to sea again, commanding one of his own ships, leaving the London office to be run by trusted men. In some ways it was a lonely life — lonely because he missed the company of intelligent men of his own generation. Yet he knew only too well that in England such men either did not understand what sent him to sea or cultivated his friendship only because they considered a rich friend was a good insurance for paying gambling debts or getting credit.
Meeting Ramage in the Caribbean had been a refreshing change, and Yorke hoped a friendship had grown which would last until they reached old age. Not, he thought with a trace of sadness, that Ramage was ever likely to reach old age. Even now, only just past his twenty-first birthday, he had been wounded a couple of times. He'd lost one ship (albeit a small cutter with a crew of about fifty men) in a particularly desperate affair during the Battle of Cape St Vincent. More recently he'd lost the Triton brig after a hurricane which in turn followed a brilliant attack on a privateer which tried to capture Yorke's own ship in a convoy of which Ramage's brig formed part of the escort. A dozen or more other episodes had led to Ramage's ship's company having a loyalty to him which Yorke knew only came from a deep respect. And you only earned the respect and loyalty of tough men-o'-war's-men by real leadership, extreme bravery and concern for the ship and the men in her.
Yet, Yorke thought, the odd thing was that on paper Nicholas Ramage, son and heir of the tenth Earl of Blazey, was far from being an ideal naval officer — or, rather, most people's idea of what one should be. He had all the obvious advantages — damned handsome, in a lean and hungry sort of way which women obviously found irresistible, and a bizarre sense of humour. He also had deep-set, piercing brown eyes which seemed to look right through you, and would endear him to few senior officers subjected to their self-assured and often chilly stare. Yet Ramage had two major handicaps: the sensitive, impatient and proud nature of an artistic person, and a lively mind and imagination. The two combined to make a young man not very amenable to the rigid, unquestioning obedience to the precise letter of an order demanded by certain types of senior naval officer.
So far, from all accounts, Ramage had been lucky. In the Mediterranean he had attracted the attention of Commodore Nelson, and a few months later at the Battle of Cape St Vincent he had made a desperate gamble which had lost him his ship but put the Commodore in the way of capturing two Spanish ships of the line and a knighthood. If Sir Horatio Nelson, now a Rear-Admiral, ever rose to any importance in the Navy, then Yorke knew that Ramage would have a powerful patron. But it took time for such a man to rise — if ever he did — and in the meantime young lieutenants like Ramage could have been eclipsed; thrust out of favour and left to spend the rest of their lives on half pay, fretting their hearts out for what might have been.
When Yorke had heard that Ramage's father was a lifelong friend of the present First Lord of the Admiralty, he'd assumed it would have assured Ramage plum jobs and certainly command of a frigate within the next two or three years. But no, it had meant nothing of the sort. Instead it had led, a few months ago, to Lord Spencer picking Ramage for a job where nothing would be said if he succeeded, but if he failed he'd have been sacrificed as a scapegoat in the same way that his father had been sacrificed by an earlier government.
Why then had Lord Spencer chosen Ramage? Yorke had puzzled over the question for many weeks, but now, while he sipped his coffee and tried to get enthusiastic for dry toast, which even the swarm of flies seemed to ignore, he thought he knew the answer. It had been a tricky job — an impossible one on the face of it. There was a chance that Ramage was the only lieutenant available at that moment that Lord Spencer thought stood even a slight chance of succeeding. But the Navy didn't lack bright young lieutenants. No, the answer was probably much simpler. Since Lord Spencer had known that failure would mean complete professional ruin, he'd probably cold-bloodedly chosen Ramage because if he failed he could spend the rest of his life running the family estate, wealthy if not contented, heir to one of the oldest earldoms in the country. For all too many young officers from less fortunate families, professional ruin would entail spending the rest of their lives as haberdashers' assistants.
Yorke glanced at Ramage, who was still staring at the letter. His eyes were bloodshot, his face taut and strained, and he was hunched in the chair as though thoroughly weary: not the weariness of a few hours' exertion but the weariness following months of strain. He was sure Ramage had never thought of Lord Spencer's action in that light — and to tell him would not help him at the moment. Yet ironically Ramage had successfully carried out the orders — his presence in the Caribbean proved that — but now, instead of reporting to the Commander-in-Chief with his own ship, he had had to report that the Triton brig had been lost on a coral reef after being dismasted in a hurricane.
It didn't matter that the only ship of war that survived the hurricane had been a line-of-battle ship, that three frigates had actually sunk, that Yorke's own ship had been tossed up on the reef with the Triton. All that mattered was that, without a ship, Ramage was entirely dependent upon the generosity of the Commander-in-Chief, and Sir Pilcher Skinner did not view him with favour ... He could not be blamed, given the way the Navy functioned, if he just shrugged his shoulders and sent Ramage back to England ...
Which, thought Yorke as he poured himself more coffee, makes that letter folded beside Ramage's plate even more intriguing ...
"You're serious about a berth in a Post Office packet?" Yorke asked.
When Ramage nodded, the young shipowner said, "We might have a long wait. The last one is two weeks overdue, and the next due any time now, but some privateer's probably snapped her up."
"There'll be a long waiting list of passengers."
"Not on your life!" Yorke exclaimed. "Very few people are so anxious to get to England that they want to risk their necks before it's known what's happening."
"What do 'they' suspect is happening?" Ramage asked quizzically.
Yorke grinned. "'They' are positive there are just too many French privateers, and 'they' include Mr Smith, the Deputy Postmaster-General, who is in charge of Foreign Mails. I spent half an hour with him yesterday trying to arrange a passage."
"Presumably you'll have the whole packet to yourself."
"No. I didn't even get round to asking the fare. There are simply no packets. And all the Navy's fault, if you listen to the Deputy Postmaster-General. He blames the Navy entirely — or Sir Pilcher, anyway."
Ramage grimaced, irritated at finding himself making excuses for Sir Pilcher. "What does Mr Smith expect — a frigate to escort each packet?"
"No, just more frigates patrolling the more obvious places where privateers can seize the packets after they sail from here."
"I can't imagine privateers lurking in obvious places, can you?"
Excerpted from Ramage's Prize by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1974 The Ramage Company Limited. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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