Second to None

Second to None

by Alexander Kent


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780935526943
Publisher: McBooks Press
Publication date: 04/28/2001
Series: Bolitho Novels Series , #24
Pages: 350
Sales rank: 835,942
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alexander Kent, pen name of Douglas Edward Reeman, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.

Read an Excerpt

Second to None

The Bolitho Novels: 24

By Alexander Kent

McBooks Press, Inc.

Copyright © 1999 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59013-310-1



Lieutenant Leigh Galbraith strode aft along the frigate's main deck and into the shadows of the poop. He was careful not to hurry, or to show any unusual concern which might create rumour amongst the groups of seamen and marines working at their various forenoon tasks.

Galbraith was tall and powerfully built, and had learned the hard way to accustom himself to low deckhead beams in one of His Britannic Majesty's ships of war. He was Unrivalled's first lieutenant, the one officer who was expected to maintain order and discipline as well as oversee the training of a new ship's company. To assure his captain that she was in all respects an efficient unit of the fleet, even to assume command at any time should some disaster befall him.

The first lieutenant was twenty-nine years old, and had been in the navy since the tender age of twelve like many of his contemporaries. It was all he had known, all he had ever wanted, and when he had been promoted to acting commander and given a ship of his own he had thought himself the luckiest man alive. A senior officer had assured him that as soon as convenient he would take the next step, make the impossible leap to full captain, something which had once seemed like a dream.

He paused by an open gunport and leaned on one of the frigate's thirty eighteen-pounders, and stared at the harbour and the other anchored ships. Carrick Roads, Falmouth, glittering in the May sunshine. He tried to contain the returning bitterness, the anger. He might have had a command like this fine ship. Could. Might. He felt the gun's barrel warm under his fingers, as if it had been fired. Like all those other times. At Camperdown with Duncan, and at Copenhagen following Nelson's flag. He had been commended for his coolness under fire, his ability to contain a dangerous situation when his ship was locked in battle with an enemy. His last captain had put his name forward for a command. That had been the brig Vixen, one of the fleet's workhorses, expected with limited resources to perform the deeds of a frigate.

Just before he had been appointed to Unrivalled he had seen his old command lying like a neglected wreck, awaiting disposal or worse. The war with France was over, Napoleon had abdicated and been sent into exile on Elba. The impossible had happened, and with the conflict in North America being brought thankfully to a close by Britain and the United States alike, the prospect of peace was hard to accept. Galbraith was no different; he had never known anything but war. With ships being paid off, and men discharged with unseemly haste with neither prospects nor experience of anything but the sea, he was lucky to have this appointment. More than he deserved, some said behind his back.

He had been pulled around the ship an hour earlier in the jolly-boat, to study the trim as she lay motionless above her own reflection. She had been in commission for five months, and with her rigging and shrouds blacked-down, each sail neatly furled to its yard, she was a perfect picture of the shipbuilder's art. Even her figurehead, the naked body of a beautiful woman arched beneath the beak-head, hands clasped behind her head, breasts thrust out in a daring challenge, was breathtaking. Unrivalled was the first to carry that name on the Navy List, the first of the bigger frigates which had been hastily laid down to meet the American threat, which had cost them dearly in a war neither side could win. A war which was already becoming a part of history.

Galbraith plucked his uniform coat away from his chest and tried to push the resentment aside. He was lucky. The navy was all he knew, all he wanted. He must remember that at all times.

He heard the Royal Marine sentry's heels click together as he approached the screen door to the aftermost cabins.

"First lieutenant, sir!"

Galbraith gave him a nod, but the sentry's eyes did not waver beneath the brim of his leather hat.

A servant opened the door and stood aside as Galbraith entered the captain's quarters. Any man would be proud, honoured to have her. When Galbraith had stood watching with the assembled ship's company and guests as the ship's new captain, her first captain, had unrolled his commission to read himself in and so assume command, he had tried to banish all envy and accept the man he was to serve.

After five months, all the training and the drills, the struggle to recruit more landmen to fill the gaps once the pressed hands had been discharged, he realised that Captain Adam Bolitho was still a stranger. In a ship of the line it might be expected, especially with a new company, but in frigates and smaller vessels like his Vixen it was rare.

He watched him warily. Slim, hair so dark it could have been black, and when he turned away from the stern windows and the reflected green of the land, the same restlessness Galbraith had noticed at their first meeting. Like most sea officers, he knew a lot about the Bolitho family, Sir Richard in particular. The whole country did, or seemed to, and had been stunned by the news of his death in the Mediterranean. Killed by a marksman in the enemy's rigging, the very day Napoleon had stepped ashore in France after escaping from Elba. The day peace had become another memory.

Of this man, Sir Richard Bolitho's nephew, he had heard only tidbits, although nothing remained secret for long in the fleet. The best frigate captain, some said; brave to a point of recklessness, others described him. He had been given his first command, a brig like Galbraith's, at the age of twenty-three; and later lost his frigate Anemone fighting a vastly superior American force. Taken prisoner, he had escaped, to become flag captain to the man who was now Flag Officer, Plymouth.

Adam was looking at him now, his dark eyes revealing strain, although he was making an effort to smile. A youthful, alert face, one which would be very attractive to women, Galbraith decided. And if some of the gossip was to be believed, that was also true. Galbraith said, "The gig is lowered, sir. The crew will be piped at four bells, unless ..."

Adam Bolitho moved to the table and touched the sword which was lying there. Old in design, straight-bladed, and lighter than the new regulation blades. It was part of the legend, the Bolitho sword, worn by so many of the family. Worn by Richard Bolitho when he had been marked down by the enemy.

Galbraith glanced around the cabin, the eighteen-pounders intruding even here. When cleared for action from bow to stern Unrivalled could present a formidable broadside. He bit his lip. Even if they were so badly undermanned. There were cases of wine waiting to be unpacked and stowed; he had seen them swayed aboard earlier, and knew they had come from the Bolitho house here in Falmouth, which would be the captain's property now. Somehow it did not seem to fit this youthful man with the bright epaulettes. He noticed, too, that the cases were marked with a London address, in St James's Street.

Galbraith clenched his fist. He had been there once. When he had visited London, when his world had started to collapse.

Adam forced his mind into the present. "Thank you, Mr Galbraith. That will suit well." He waited, saw the questions forming in the first lieutenant's eyes. A good man, he thought, firm but not impatient with the new hands, and wary of the old Jacks who might seek favours from an unknown officer.

He could feel the ship moving very gently beneath his feet. Eager to move, to be free of the land. And what of me, her captain?

He had seen Galbraith looking at the wine; it was from Catherine. Despite all that had happened, her despair and sense of loss, she had remembered. Or had she been thinking of one who had gone?

"Is there something else?" He had not meant to sound impatient, but he seemed unable to control his tone. Galbraith had not apparently noticed. Or had he simply become accustomed to the moods of his new lord and master?

Galbraith said, "If it is not an imposition, sir, I was wondering ..." He hesitated as Adam's eyes settled coldly on him. Like someone watching the fall of shot, he thought.

Then Adam said, "I am sorry. Please tell me."

"I should like to pay my respects, sir. For the ship." He did not flinch as a voice on deck yelled obscenely at a passing bum-boat to stand away. "And for myself."

Adam dragged out the watch from his pocket and knew Galbraith had noticed it. It was heavy and old, and he could recall exactly the moment when he had seen it in the shop in Halifax. The ticking, chiming clocks all around him, and yet it had seemed a place of peace. Escape, so many times. At the change of duties on deck, reefing or making sail, altering course, or entering harbour after a successful landfall ... The old watch which had once belonged to another "seafaring officer." One thing had made it different, the little mermaid engraved on the case.

He said, "If you think we can both be spared from the ship?" It was not what he had meant to say. It was the mermaid which had distracted him, the girl's face, so clear, as in the shop. Zenoria.

Then he said, "I would take it kindly, Mr Galbraith." He looked at him steadily and thought he could see a momentary warmth, something he had tried not to encourage. "Impress on the others, extra vigilance. We are under orders. I don't want any deserters now. We'd not have enough to work ship, let alone fight."

"I shall deal with it, sir." Galbraith moved towards the door. It was not much, but it was the closest they had yet been.

Adam Bolitho waited for the door to close, then walked to an open quarter window and stared down at the water rippling beneath the counter.

A beautiful ship. Working with the local squadron, he had felt the power of her. The fastest he had known. Soon the anonymous faces would become people, individuals, the strength and the weakness of any ship. But not too close. Not again. As if someone had whispered a warning.

He sighed and looked at the cases of wine. How would Catherine manage, what would she do without the man who had become her life?

He heard three bells chime faintly from the forecastle.

It was going to be hard, even harder than he had imagined. People watching him, as they had watched his beloved uncle, with love, hatred, admiration and envy, none of them ever far away.

He knew Galbraith's background, and what had smashed his chance of promotion to the coveted post rank. It could happen to anybody. To me. He thought of Zenoria again, and of what he had done, but he felt no shame, only a deep sense of loss.

He was about to walk beneath the open skylight when he heard Galbraith's voice.

"When the Pendennis battery fires one gun, you will dip the flag and ensign, Mr Massie, and all hands will face aft and uncover."

Adam waited. It was like an intrusion, but he felt unable to move. Massie was the second lieutenant, a serious young man who held the appointment because his father was a vice-admiral. He was, as yet, an unknown quantity.

Massie said, "I wonder if Sir Richard's lady will be there."

He heard their feet move away. An innocent remark? And who did he mean? Catherine, or Belinda, Lady Bolitho?

And there would be spite to bring out the worst. Shortly after Unrivalled had commissioned, the news of Emma Hamilton's death had been released. Nelson's lover and inspiration and the nation's darling, but she had been allowed to die alone in Calais, in poverty, abandoned by so-called friends and those who had been entrusted with her care.

The ship moved slightly to her cable and he saw his reflection in the thick glass.

Brokenly he said, "I'll never forget, Uncle!"

But the ship moved again, and he was alone.

Bryan Ferguson, the Bolitho estate's one-armed steward, stared at the two ledgers on his table. Both had remained unopened. It was late evening but through the window he could still see tall trees silhouetted against the sky, as if the day was reluctant to end. He stood up and walked to the cupboard, pausing as the creeper outside the window rustled slightly. A wind, freshening from the south-east at last, as some of the fishermen had said it would. After all that stillness. Ferguson opened the cupboard and took out a stone bottle and one glass. After all that sadness.

There was another glass in there, too, kept especially for the times when John Allday came over on some pretext or other from the little inn at Fallowfield on the Helford River. The Old Hyperion: even the name had a deeper significance this day.

It might be a while yet before John Allday came here. The Frobisher, Sir Richard Bolitho's flagship, was coming home to be paid off. Or maybe not, now that Napoleon was in France on the rampage again. And it was only last year that the town had gone wild at the news: the allied armies were in Paris, Bonaparte was finished. Exile in Elba had not been enough; he had heard Lady Catherine say that it was like putting an eagle in an aviary. Others were of the opinion that Boney should have been hanged after all the misery and murder he had caused.

But Allday would not remain on board the ship where Sir Richard had fallen. Only when he was back, perhaps sitting here with a wet between those big hands, would they know the real story. Unis, his wife, who ran the Old Hyperion, often received letters from him, but Allday himself could not write, so his words came through George Avery, Bolitho's flag lieutenant. Theirs was a rare and strange relationship within the rigid bounds of the navy, and Allday had once remarked that it seemed wrong that while the flag lieutenant read and wrote his letters for him, he never received any himself. And from the moment when the dreadful news had broken in Falmouth, Ferguson had known that Allday would never entrust that moment to anyone, or share it, or commit it to paper. He would tell them himself, in person. If he could.

He coughed; he had swallowed a measure of rum without noticing that he had poured it. He sat down again and stared at the unopened ledgers. Above his head he could hear his wife Grace moving about. Unable to rest, unable even to deal with her usual duties as housekeeper, a position of which she was very proud. As he was.

He gripped the glass tightly with the one hand which was now able to do so much. Once he had believed he would be useless, just another piece of human flotsam left behind in this seemingly endless war. But Grace had nursed him through all of it. Now he found himself recalling the moment mostly at times like these, in the shadows, when it was easier to picture the towering pyramids of sails, the lines of French ships, the deafening crash and roar of broadsides as the two fleets had joined in a bloody embrace. It had seemed to take all day for them to draw together, and all the while the sailors, especially the new ones, pressed men like himself, had been forced to watch the enemy's topsails rising like banners until they had filled the horizon. One officer had later described the awesome sight as resembling the armoured knights at Agincourt.

And all the while, aboard the frigate Phalarope, so puny she had seemed against that great line of battle, he had seen their young captain, Richard Bolitho, urging and encouraging, and once, before Ferguson himself had been smashed down, he had seen him kneel to hold the hand of a dying sailor. He had never forgotten his face on that terrible day, never would forget it.

And now he was the steward of this estate, its farm and its cottages, and all the characters who made it a good place to work. Many of them were former sailors, men who had served with Bolitho in so many ships and in every part of the world where the flag had been hoisted. He had seen many of them at the church today, for Sir Richard Bolitho was one of them, and Falmouth's most famous son. Son of a sailor, from generations of sea officers, and this house below Pendennis Castle was a part of their history.


Excerpted from Second to None by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1999 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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