The year is 1798. Napoleon's naval forces are amassing in the Mediterranean, preparing to annex Egypt, and it is there the newly-promoted Commodore Richard Bolitho is sent with a small squadron of ships under his command.
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.
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The Bolitho Novels: 12
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1974 Alexander Kent
All rights reserved.
Beneath Gibraltar's towering and craggy protection, the mixed collection of anchored shipping tugged at their cables and waited for the sudden squall to abate. Despite streaks of pale blue which showed themselves occasionally between the brisk clouds, the air was cold, with a bite in it more common in the Bay of Biscay than the Mediterranean.
Considering its strategic importance, Gibraltar's anchorage was unusually deserted. A few storeships, some brigs and schooners finding shelter or awaiting orders made up the bulk of vessels there, and of major men-of-war there were but three. Anchored well apart from the other hotch-potch of local craft were three ships of the line, seventy-fours, which in this month of January 1798 were still the most popular, and the most adaptable, vessels in any plan of battle.
The one anchored nearest to the land bore the name Lysander across her broad counter, a name to match the figurehead which stared angrily from beneath her bowsprit. It was a fine figurehead, with the black-bearded Spartan general adorned in crested helmet and breastplate, originally carved by Henry Callaway of Deptford. Like the rest of the big two-decker, it was well painted, with a look of newness which belied the ship's eleven long years in the King's service.
Back and forth, up and down her wide quarterdeck her captain, Thomas Herrick, walked with barely a pause to peer towards the shore. If he considered his ship's appearance and condition, it was more from anxiety than pride. The months of work in England to get Lysander ready for sea, the whole wearing business of re-commissioning and gathering what amounted to practically a raw company had gone on without a pause. Stores and powder, water and provisions, weapons and the men to handle them. Herrick had more than once questioned the fates which had given him his new command.
And yet, despite the delays and infuriating slackness amongst dockyard men and chandlers, he had seen his ship grow from a disorganised chaos to a living, vital creature.
Frightened men brought aboard by the unrelenting press-gangs, and others gathered by motives as varied as patriotism or merely fleeing into the Navy to avoid a hangman's halter, had been slowly and painstakingly moulded into something which, if still far from perfect, could offer hope for the future. The first squall in the Bay as Lysander had crawled south towards Portugal had brought some weakness to light. Too many seasoned hands in one watch, too many landsmen in another. But under Herrick's careful watch, and the efforts of Lysander's remaining backbone of professional warrant officers, they had at least come to terms with the awesome maze of rigging, the rebellious and treacherous folds of canvas which made up their daily lives at sea.
Once at anchor below the Rock, Herrick had waited with growing apprehension for this particular day. More ships had arrived and anchored nearby. The other two seventy-fours, Osiris and Nicator, the frigate Buzzard and the little sloop of war Harebell were no longer separate entities but part of a whole. By order of the Admiralty in London they had become one. The squadron, in which Herrick's ship would hoist the broad pendant of commodore, and over which and through all imaginable circumstances Richard Bolitho would at any moment now be exercising his right of command.
It was strange when Herrick hesitated to consider the matter. It was only four months since he and Bolitho had returned to England from this same sea. After a bloody battle in which Herrick's own ship had been destroyed and a complete French squadron routed or taken, they had gone to the Admiralty together. It still seemed like a dream, a memory of long past.
The result of that visit had been far-reaching. For Richard Bolitho an immediate promotion to commodore, and for Herrick the post of flag captain. Their admiral had been less fortunate. Packed off to govern a penal colony in New South Wales, the very swiftness of his fall from grace had somehow measured the step between authority and oblivion.
Herrick's first overwhelming pleasure of being appointed flag captain to Bolitho had been slightly marred by another of the Admiralty's changes of heart. Instead of Bolitho's own ship, Euryalus, the great one hundred gun three-decker which he had originally seized as a prize from the French, they had been given the Lysander. Easier to handle than a great first-rate, possibly, but Herrick suspected that another officer more senior than Bolitho had claimed the ex-Frenchman for himself.
He paused in his pacing and ran his eyes along the busy decks. Seamen were working on the gangways and boat tier. Others swayed high overhead amongst the black criss-cross of shrouds and stays, halliards and braces, making sure that no frayed lines, no broken wisps of hemp would greet the new commodore as he stepped through the entry port. The marines were already in position. No need to worry about their Major Leroux. He was speaking with his lieutenant, a rather vacant young man called Nepean, while a sergeant checked each marine's musket and appearance.
The midshipman of the watch must have an aching arm, Herrick thought. He was very conscious of his captain's presence, and was holding a heavy telescope to his eye, obeying the last order, to report immediately when the commodore's boat shoved off from the jetty.
Herrick shifted his gaze outboard towards the other vessels of the small squadron. He had had little to do with them so far, but already knew quite a lot about their various captains. From the little sloop which regularly bared her copper as she rolled uncomfortably in the squall to th quite a lot about their various captains. From the little sloop which regularly bared her copper as she rolled uncomfortably in the squall to the nearest two-decker, Osiris, they all seemed to have some sort of link. Nicator's captain, for instance. Herrick had discovered that he had served with Bolitho during the American Revolution when they had both been lieutenants. Their reunion might present pleasure or otherwise, he thought. Commander Inch of the dizzily swaying Harebell had commanded a bomb vessel with the old squadron, here in the Mediterranean. Of Buzzard's captain, Raymond Javal, he had learned little but gossip. Hasty temper. Hungry for prize money. He had all the makings of a typical if awkward frigate captain.
He let his gaze rest on the Osiris once again and tried to conceal his irritation. She was almost a twin to the Lysander and her destiny was firmly in the hands of Captain Charles Farquhar. All those years ago. It was like another fate which had somehow drawn them together once more, to serve under the same Richard Bolitho. Then it had been in the frigate Phalarope in the West Indies during the Americans' fight for independence. Bolitho had been her captain, Herrick his first lieutenant and Farquhar one of the midshipmen. Arrogant, high-born, Farquhar never failed to prick Herrick's resentment. Even looking at his Osiris did nothing to help. Her ornate gingerbread and other carving at poop and beakhead displayed a lavish use of real gilt paint as an outward sign of her captain's status and prosperity. So far they had avoided meeting each other, except when Farquhar had reported his arrival at Gibraltar.
Any sort of fresh beginning had faded as Farquhar had drawled, "I say, you don't seem to have spent much on the old ship, eh?" That same maddening smile. "Our new lord and master won't like that, y'know!"
Suddenly, the lower line of black gunports opened along Osiris's sloping side, and with perfect precision the whole battery of thirty-two-pounders trundled into the weak sunlight. As one.
Something like panic ran through Herrick's mind. Farquhar would never allow his ambitious brain to be fogged by some stupid memory or dislike. He had kept his eye on what mattered most to him. Which at this particular minute was to impress the commodore. It happened to be Richard Bolitho, a man more dear to Herrick than any other living being. But if it had been Satan himself Farquhar would have been ready.
As if to make the final stab the midshipman of the watch shouted excitedly, "Barge shoving off from the jetty, sir!"
Herrick licked his lips. They felt like dry ashes.
"Very well, Mr. Saxby. My compliments to the first lieutenant. He may muster the hands now."
Richard Bolitho walked to the quarter windows of the broad cabin and looked towards the other ships. Despite the importance of the moment, the solemnity of being received aboard his own flagship for the first time in his life, he could not contain his excitement. It was like wine and laughter all bubbling up inside him, held in check by some last reserve.
He turned and saw Herrick watching him from beside the screen door. Some seamen were carefully arranging chests and boxes which had been swayed up from the barge, and he could hear his coxswain, Allday, bawling angrily at someone to take care.
"Well, Thomas, that was a fine welcome."
He strode across the deck with its neat covering of black and white chequered canvas and took Herrick's hand. Overhead he could hear the thump of boots as the marine guard departed, the returning familiar sounds of normal routine.
Herrick smiled awkwardly. "Thank you, sir." He gestured at the baggage. "I hope you've brought all you need. It seems we may be a while from home."
Bolitho studied him gravely. Herrick's stocky figure, his round, homely face and those bright blue eyes were almost as familiar as Allday's. But he seemed different somehow. It was only four months, and yet ...
He thought of all that had happened since that visit to the Admiralty. The discussions with men so senior and powerful that he still could not grasp that promotion could mean so much. Whenever he had mentioned his anxiety over the progress being made with his new flagship he had seen that amused look in their eyes.
The admiral who had given him his appointment, Sir George Beauchamp, had put it into words. "You'll have to forget that sort of thing now, Bolitho. The captain must deal with the running of a ship. Yours is a more exacting task."
Eventually he had taken passage to Gibraltar in a fast frigate, pausing in the Tagus with despatches for the flagship of the fleet employed on blockade duty. There he had been given an audience with the admiral, the Earl of St. Vincent, so titled because of his great victory eleven months back. The admiral, still affectionately known as "Old Jarvy" by many of his subordinates, but only when he was well out of earshot, had greeted him briskly.
"You've got your orders. See you carry 'em out. It's been months since we knew what the French were up to. Our spies in the channel ports reported that Bonaparte visited the coast many times to lay plans for invading England." He had given his dry chuckle. "I think my medicine off Cape St. Vincent taught 'em to tread warily where the sea is concerned. Bonaparte is a land animal. A planner. Unfortunately, we have nobody to match him yet. Not on land, that is."
Looking back it was hard to measure how much the admiral had managed to explain and describe in that brief interview. He had been on active duty with hardly a break, and yet he had been able to sum up the situation in home waters and the Mediterranean better than any Admiralty official.
The admiral had walked with him to his quarterdeck and had said quietly, "Beauchamp is the man to plan this sort of mission. But it needs seagoing officers to push those ideas to reality. Your squadron's efforts last year in the Mediterranean told us a great deal about French intentions. Your admiral, Broughton, did not perhaps understand their true significance until it was all too late. For him, that is." He had given Bolitho a grim stare. "We must know the worth of putting a fleet into these waters again. If we divide our squadrons for a bad purpose, the French will soon explore our weakness. But your orders will tell you what you must do. Only you can decide how you are going to do it." Again that dry chuckle. "I wanted Nelson for the task, but he is still sorely weakened by the loss of his arm. Beauchamp chose you for this tickle at Bonaparte's underbelly. I hope for all our sakes it was a wise choice."
And now, after all the discussions, the searching through reports to discover the value of countless ideas of the enemy's motives and objectives, he was here in his own flagship. Beyond the thick glass windows were other ships, all linked by the dovetailed broad pendant which had broken at the masthead as he had climbed aboard to the slap of muskets and the din of fifes and drums.
And he still could not believe it. He felt the same as before. As eager to get to sea as he had been in the past whenever he had joined a new ship.
But the difference would soon display itself in all manner of ways. When Herrick had been his first lieutenant he had stood between his captain and company. The link and the barrier. Now Herrick, as flag captain, would stand between him and his other officers, his little squadron and every man-jack aboard each individual ship. Five vessels in all, way over two thousand souls divided amongst them. It was that kind of assessment which brought home the reality of his command.
He asked, "How is young Adam? I did not see him when I came aboard." As he said it he saw the stiffness come to Herrick's face.
"I was about to tell you, sir. He is with the surgeon." He looked at the deck. "A slight accident, but, thank God, no real harm done."
Bolitho replied, "The truth, Thomas. Is my nephew ill?"
Herrick looked up, his blue eyes suddenly angry. "A stupid argument with his opposite number in the Osiris, sir. Her sixth lieutenant gave some sort of insult. They went ashore on their separate duties but arranged to meet and settle the matter."
Bolitho made himself walk slowly to the stern windows and stare down at the swirling water around the rudder.
Just the sound of the word made him feel sick. Despairing. Like father like son? It was not possible.
"High spirits more like." Herrick sounded unconvinced. "Neither was badly hurt, though I gather Adam nicked the other fellow the worse."
Bolitho turned and regarded him calmly. "I will see him directly."
Herrick swallowed. "With your permission, sir, I should like to deal with the matter myself."
Bolitho nodded slowly, feeling a great gap yawning between him and his friend.
He said quietly, "Of course, Thomas. Adam Pascoe is my nephew. But he is one of your officers now."
Herrick tried to relax. "I am deeply sorry to trouble you in your first hour, sir. Not for the whole world would I wish that."
"I know." He smiled gravely. "It was foolish of me to interfere. I was a flag captain and often resented my superior's hand in my own affairs."
Herrick looked around the big cabin, eager to change the subject.
"I hope everything is to your liking, sir. Your servant is preparing a meal, and I have had some hands detailed to stow your chests for you."
"Thank you. It seems most satisfactory."
He stopped. It was happening again. The formal tones. The offering and an acceptance. When they had always been used to sharing. Understanding.
Herrick asked suddenly, "Will we be putting to sea soon, sir?"
"Aye, Thomas. Tomorrow forenoon if the wind stays favourable." He pulled the watch from his pocket and snapped open the guard. "I would wish to see my officers —" He faltered. Even that was changed. He added, "To see the other captains as soon as is convenient. I received some more despatches from the governor here, but after I have read them I should like to tell the squadron what we are about." He smiled. "Don't look so troubled, Thomas. It is as hard for me as for you."
For a brief moment Bolitho saw the old light in Herrick's eyes. The warmth and trust which could so easily turn to hurt.
Herrick replied, "I feel like an old foot in a new shoe." He smiled, too. "I'll not let you down."
Excerpted from Signal--Close Action! by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1974 Alexander Kent. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The abismal editing of the previous volumes seems to have been cleared up by this one, but the plot line is becoming quite formulaic. I often found myself thinking, 'Where have I heard that line before?'
Have been enjoying the read of this series, have even enjoyed the repeated lines n not often slightly mistaken recollections of last events.
I have read the Aubrey/Maturin books and must say that in comparison to the Bolitho series they seem to lag with monotony. The way Bolitho always seems to be engaged in some sort of action, physcal or not, is astounding. I found myself snoring to poor old Jack.