Sloop of War
The Bolitho Novels: 4
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 1972 Alexander Kent
All rights reserved.
It seems to be law inflexible and inexorable that he who will not risk cannot win.
JOHN PAUL JONES
THE MOST COVETED GIFT
IT WAS a little more than a hundred yards' walk from the busy foreshore to the elegant white building at the top of the coast road, but within a minute of leaving the launch Richard Bolitho was damp with sweat. In the broad expanse of English Harbour there had been an illusion of a breeze, but here, as the noon sun stood high above Monk's Hill and bathed the island of Antigua in a shimmering haze, there was no such comfort.
Nevertheless, Bolitho quickened his pace, conscious of his rising excitement and a sense of unreality which had been with him since his arrival just a week earlier. Events had moved so fast that he felt unable to keep a grip on them, as if he was a spectator watching somebody else, a being quite alien to his own resources.
Through wide gates, the sand and dust covering his new shoes with a pale layer, and across some well-tended gardens towards the building itself. But for the flag which hung limply from its staff it could have been the residence of some rich merchant or ship-owner. From the number of Negro servants who were working amidst the flowers and shrubs he guessed that the previous occupant had probably been a dealer in African slaves.
Within the deep porch it felt almost cold after the sun's fierce glare, and he found himself confronted by a red-faced sergeant of marines who, after a cursory glance which covered Bolitho from top to toe, said, "If you will step into this room, sir." His tone, if not offhand, was that of a man so used to dealing with the comings and goings of sea-officers that he could no longer be excited by anything or anyone.
Bolitho entered the small room and heard the door slam behind him. For the first time since he could recall he was quite alone. Alone, and poised on what might be the most important step in his life.
He made himself walk very slowly to the window and stood looking down at the harbour spread below him like some great painting. English Harbour. The headquarters and linchpin of England's sea power in the Indies and Caribbean. Every type of ship seemed to be here. Stately two-deckers in the deep anchorage, their awnings spread and every gun port open to catch the merest breath of air. Lithe frigates and supply vessels, and a whole collection of smaller craft from brigs to schooners, between which countless oared boats plied back and forth like water-beetles.
Somewhere in the building a man shouted loudly and feet clattered in a passageway. Bolitho tore his eyes from the anchored ships and crossed to a wall mirror, his mind suddenly very aware of what the next minutes might bring or take away.
He still could not get used to his change of appearance. He had never imagined that a uniform would alter a man's outward image so much yet leave him inwardly the same. Just weeks ago he had been second lieutenant in the Trojan, an eighty-gun ship- of-the-line. For three years he had lived, worked and nearly died within her crowded hull, rising from his original position of fourth lieutenant by way of one man's death and the promotion of another. He had become used to the Trojan, even though he had had to fight off the yearning to free himself from her ponderous authority to find more individual scope for his ideas.
Like everyone aboard he had been kept busy enough. With the rebellion in America every ship-of-war was needed as never before. As the rebellion grew and spread and some real hint of its purpose filtered through to the fleet the Trojan was called from one crisis to another.
It seemed incredible that disorganised bands of men could be welded into armies. Armies strong and agile enough to outmanuvre some of the best troops from England. But like most of his companions Bolitho had firmly believed that some sort of compromise would still present itself. That was until six months ago in October 1777, when the news of Burgoyne's surrender had burst upon them. Overnight, or so it seemed, the rebellion had developed into a new and bitter conflict. On the one hand the British with their overstretched resources, and on the other the armies of the American Revolution backed as they were by a whole fleet of privateers from France and Spain. No supply ship could sail alone without the real risk of being taken by such privateers. Even troop convoys were not immune from attack.
It was in the middle of this new hit-and-run war that Bolitho's own life had changed. Trojan had run down and boarded a prize, a handsome brig, off the coast of Puerto Rico, her holds jammed with contraband goods and powder for the Americans. Caught between two sets of shoals and confronted by the Trojan's impressive artillery, her master decided to surrender without fuss.
Trojan's first lieutenant was badly needed in his own ship as most of the officers were newly appointed and without much experience. To Bolitho fell the lot of prizemaster, with orders to take her to Antigua and await further instructions. It was like the beginning to some impossible dream. Freedom, excitement, the room to move and act without his captain's eye upon him, the little brig seemed to offer unlimited possibilities, even though he knew it would not last.
But fate had other ideas. Within a few days they had sighted another, larger brig, well handled, and displaying a heavier armament than was usual for such a craft. There had been no doubt that she was a privateer, and, further, it had seemed likely she was approaching to make a rendezvous with the prize.
There was little time to think, let alone plan. The other ship would outsail and outshoot anything Bolitho's small prize-crew could offer. To fight and die to no purpose was unthinkable, and to surrender without doing so was equally so.
It had turned out to be so simple that looking back it too seemed like part of the dream. Closing the unsuspecting privateer, apparently to pass despatches, they had run alongside and grappled her, both vessels being buried under a mass of fallen spars and canvas in the collision. A volley of musket fire, a wildly yelling rush of boarders, and the other ship was taken, even though her company outnumbered Bolitho's party by four to one. Trojan's seamen were well used to this sort of game. The privateer's crew were not. In fact, it was her captain's first voyage in that capacity.
So instead of one prize Bolitho entered harbour with a pair. With the war going badly on land, and affairs at sea so confused as to be equally disheartening, his arrival under the guns of the harbour's battery was like a tonic. Handshakes from a rear-admiral, smiling greetings from senior captains, Bolitho had been staggered by the welcome.
With the prizes handed over to the dockyard he had been found accommodation in an old hulk called Octavia. Originally a two-decker, she had been all but sunk in a hurricane the previous year, and now served as accommodation ship. Junior officers whiled away the time gambling, sleeping or drinking to excess as they awaited their next appointments. Promotion and transfers, courts martial or passage home as a crippled victim of some encounter with the enemy, the old Octavia had seen them all.
As the days passed, Bolitho began to imagine he had been forgotten. Soon the Trojan would arrive and he would find himself back again in her tight community. Living from day to day. Hoping, yet not daring to hope for too much.
The orders, when they were delivered by an immaculate flag lieutenant, were as brief as they were astounding. By consent of the Commander-in-Chief, Richard Bolitho would take upon himself the appointment of commander with the rank and benefits attached. The appointment would take effect forthwith. He would furnish himself with all necessary vestments and report to the newly acquired headquarters building in two days' time.
He stared at himself in the glass. Today.
It seemed that in Antigua you could obtain everything even at such short notice, for a price. And now, instead of his faded lieutenant's uniform, he was looking at the broad blue lapels of commander, the single gold stripe on each sleeve which showed him to be what was to all intent a junior captain. Behind him on the chair a gold-laced cocked hat shone in the filtered sunlight, and like everything else about him, his white waistcoat and breeches, a tight neckcloth and his dusty shoes, even the handsome basket-hilted sword which he had chosen with such care, were so new that they felt like borrowed finery. He had not dared to contemplate the cost, the bribes required to obtain everything within the allotted time. An advance on his well-earned prize money had sufficed for the present.
He touched the lock of black hair which hung rebelliously above his right eye. Beneath it the deep, savage scar which ran to his hairline felt hot, as if it had been a matter of weeks rather than years when he had been struck down by a cutlass.
In spite of his inner tension he grinned at himself. Junior or not, he had taken the first real step. One which would bring him either fame or disgrace, but which like all his family before him he had awaited with both anxiety and eagerness.
More footsteps sounded in the passageway and he adjusted his neckcloth and settled the new sword more comfortably on his hip. Once again his image in the mirror was like a stranger's. The uniform, the tense way he was holding his slim figure as if on parade, displayed more apprehension than he had believed he harboured.
The footsteps halted outside the door, and in one movement Bolitho swept up the cocked hat and jammed it beneath one arm, trying to ignore his heart pounding against his ribs like a hammer. His mouth was bone dry, yet he could feel the sweat running between his shoulder-blades like warm rain.
Richard Bolitho was twenty-two years old and had been in the King's Navy since the age of twelve. But as he stared fixedly at the gilt door handle he felt more like a frightened midshipman than the man who was about to receive the most coveted gift to be bestowed on any living creature. A command of his own.
The marine sergeant stared at him woodenly. "When you're ready, sir. Cap'n Colquhoun will see you now."
"I'm ready, thank you."
The marine eyed him with the merest hint of a smile.
"He'll be glad to know that, I'm sure, sir."
Bolitho did not hear a word. Following the
Bolitho did not hear a word. Following the sergeant he strode out into the passageway, and another world.
Captain Vere Colquhoun rose briefly from behind a large desk, made as if to offer his hand, and then sank back into his chair.
"Pray be seated, Bolitho."
He had his back to a window and it was impossible to see his expression. But as Bolitho arranged himself into a narrow, high-backed chair he was well aware of the other man's scrutiny.
Colquhoun said, "You have a good report." He opened a canvas folder and ran his eyes across the attached papers. "I see that you were commissioned lieutenant in 'seventy- four." He glanced up sharply. "Well?"
Bolitho replied, "Yes, sir. The Destiny, frigate."
He had been long enough in the Navy to realise that interviews with superior officers took time. Each had his own way, but all seemed to result in being kept hanging on a thread of uneasy expectation. He tried to ignore Colquhoun's bowed head and made himself look instead at the room. White walls and a colourful tiled floor. Some pieces of dark, heavy furniture and one table which was almost covered with handsome decanters. Colquhoun, it appeared, enjoyed life. He shifted his gaze to his new superior. At a guess he was about thirty, and from what he could see from the sunlit window he had finely cut features with a small, aggressive chin. He had fair hair, pulled back to the nape of his neck like his own, in the current fashion, and Bolitho noticed that in spite of his service on the station his skin was remarkably pale.
Colquhoun said, "Your captain speaks well of you." He rustled his papers. "Quite well."
Bolitho tried not to swallow and display the dryness in his throat. Captain Pears of the Trojan had sent a report with him aboard the prize. Had he been aware of Bolitho's later luck with the privateer his report might have been even better. It was strange, he thought. In the three years aboard Pears's ship he had never really understood the man. Sometimes he had imagined his captain disliked him, and at best only tolerated his efforts. Yet now, on this desk, under the eyes of a new superior, Pears's words were showing him in a different light.
"Thank you, sir."
"Hmph." Colquhoun stood up and walked towards the table and then changed his mind. Instead he moved to the window and stared absently at the anchorage. "I am commanded to give you your new appointment. It will be up to you to prove your worth, an ability to carry out orders rather than to make play with them for your own advantage."
Bolitho waited. It was impossible to follow this man.
Colquhoun added, "Since the military disaster at Saratoga last year we have seen all the signs of the French increasing their aid to the Americans. Originally they sent supplies and military advisers. Then privateers and soldiers-of-fortune, mercenaries." He spat out the words. "Now they are more open in their efforts to use the Americans to further their own ends and regain territory lost to us in the Seven Years War."
Bolitho gripped the hilt of his new sword and tried to remain outwardly calm. Somewhere outside this room was a ship awaiting her new captain. Old or new, large or insignificant as a fighting unit, she was to be all his own. And he had to remain quite still, listening to Captain Colquhoun's observations on the war. Bolitho had been involved in the war since its beginning, and he had already learned from a fellow officer in the Octavia that Colquhoun had arrived from England just six months ago.
Colquhoun was saying in the same dry tone, "But while we command the sea-lanes and supply routes neither the French nor the damned Pope can stop us regaining overall control of the mainland." He turned slightly, the sun glinting across the gold lace of his coat. "Don't you agree?"
Bolitho shifted in his chair. "Up to a point, sir. But ..."
Colquhoun snapped, "But is not a word which appeals to me. Either you agree or you disagree."
"I think more should be done to seek out the privateers and destroy them in their bases, sir." He paused, anticipating some caustic remark. Then he continued, "We have too few ships to spare for convoy work. Any attack on merchantmen, pressed home by two or more vessels at once, can play the devil with a solitary escort."
"Really. You surprise me."
Bolitho bit his lip. He had allowed himself to be drawn. Perhaps Colquhoun had been hoping that one of his friends or protégés would be given the new appointment, and saw Bolitho as an intruder. Whatever it was, there seemed to be no doubting his hostility.
"I have, of course, heard of your family, Bolitho. Seafaring stock. None of 'em ever afraid to risk his neck. And out here at this moment we need the best fighting officers we can get."
He turned abruptly to the window. "Come over here."
Bolitho crossed to his side and followed his glance towards the ships at anchor.
"Look impressive, don't they?" Colquhoun gave what might have been a sigh. "But once at sea, scattered to the winds, they are just a handful. With the Frogs at our backs and threatening England once more we are stretched beyond any safety limit." He gestured across the harbour. A frigate was being careened, heeled right over on her beam, her bilges covered with busy figures, their naked backs shining in the glare like polished mahogany. Colquhoun said, quietly, "Bacchante, thirty-six." He tightened his jaw. "My ship. First time I've been able to get her underwater repairs done since I assumed command." Bolitho darted a quick glance at him. He had always dreamed of commanding a frigate since his first and only experience in the little twenty-eight-gun Destiny. Freedom to move and hit hard at anything but a ship-of-the-line, with all the dash and agility that any young captain could ask for. But Colquhoun did not seem to fit the role. Slightly built, with the pale, petulant good looks of a true aristocrat. His clothes were beautifully made, and the sword at his hip must be worth two hundred guineas. Colquhoun raised his arm. "Look yonder. Beyond my ship you will see the rest of our flotilla. With these and nothing more I am expected to patrol and seek out the enemy, run errands for the fleet, dab away the tears of rich merchantmen whenever they sight an unfamiliar sail. It would need a force five times as large, and even then I would hope for more." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sloop of War by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1972 Alexander Kent. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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