Spring 1802,and the Peace Treaty of Amiens, signed only a few weeks earlier, is already showing signs of collapse. Britain and France wrangle over the return of colonial possessions won and lost during their long, bloody war and in the little 64-gun Achates, Vice-Admiral Richard Bolitho sails for America and the Caribbean.
About the Author
Douglas Reeman (Alexander Kent) did convoy duty in the Atlantic, the Arctic and the North Sea. He has written over thirty novels under his own name and more than twenty bestselling historical novels featuring Richard Bolitho under the pseudonym Alexander Kent.
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Success to the Brave
The Bolitho Novels: 15
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1970 Alexander Kent
All rights reserved.
FLAG AT THE FORE
Richard Bolitho leaned his palms on the sill of an open window and stared across the courtyard to the far wall and the sea beyond.
It should have been a perfect May day, and even the squat silhouette of Pendennis Castle which guarded the approaches and the entrance to Carrick Roads seemed less formidable. After nine years of war with France and her allies England was at peace. It was still hard to accept. When a strange sail appeared off the coast the young men of Falmouth no longer stood to arms in case it was an enemy raider, or hurried inland with less enthusiasm if the newcomer proved to be a King's ship. The latter always meant the arrival of hated press-gangs and men snatched from their homes to serve at sea, perhaps never to return. No wonder it was hard to believe it was all over.
He watched the carriage resting in the shadows near the stables. It was nearly time. Soon the horses would be led and harnessed. It was no longer next week or even tomorrow. It was now.
Bolitho turned and waited for his eyes to grow accustomed to the room after the reflected sunlight. The big grey house which had served the Bolitho family for generations was very still, as if it too was holding its breath, trying to hold back the inevitable.
It had been seven months since he had returned here after the battle which had destroyed the enemy's hopes of an invasion and had equally crippled the French bargaining power at the peace negotiations. Seven months since he had married and had known a sublime happiness which he had never expected.
He walked to the foot of the great staircase and glanced at the shadowy family portraits. They must all have stood here at such a moment, he thought. Wondering when or if they would ever see the house again. His great, great grandfather, Captain Daniel Bolitho, on the deck of his blazing ship. He had died in the War of the Protestant Alliance. The Bolitho features were very clear in the portrait. Like Bolitho's father and his brother Hugh, also dead, and all the others.
Now he was off to sea again and the past few months seemed to have gone in the turning of an hour-glass. When he had been summoned to the Admiralty in London he had not known what to expect. With the Peace of Amiens signed and apparently holding, it seemed as if all the bitterly won lessons had been thrown aside. Most of the fleet had been laid up and thousands of officers and men discharged to fend as best they could.
Posts for junior flag-officers would be few and handed out as favours by the Lords of Admiralty. Bolitho had been astonished when he had been told of his orders to sail with a minimum of delay for America and then the Caribbean. Not in command of another squadron, but in a small two-decker with a mere frigate for communications and general escort.
He had been courteously if formally received by Admiral Sir Hayward Sheaffe who had succeeded old Admiral Beauchamp. He had seemed to stamp the difference between war and peace, Bolitho thought. Beauchamp, worn out by illness, had died in harness without knowing his last strategy had succeeded with the French invasion fleet's destruction. Sheaffe was cool, practical, the perfect administrator. It had been hard to imagine his ever being through the mill from midshipman to his present lofty appointment.
In this quiet room Bolitho could recall Sheaffe's words as if they had just been uttered.
"I know this must seem a hard decision, Bolitho. After your escape from an enemy prison and your subsequent victory over the French admiral, Remond, you will have been expecting, and many would say rightly so, a more stable appointment. However ..." His voice had lingered on the word. "War does not end with the last ball fired. Their lordships require a man of tact as well as action for this task. It is not without reward, I think. You are to be promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Red." His eyes had studied Bolitho's features to seek his reaction. "The youngest and most junior on the Navy List." He had added dryly, "Apart from Nelson, that is, the nation's darling."
So that was it. Sheaffe was jealous of those who had become known and admired by friend and enemy alike. In spite of his status and power, Sheaffe still envied them.
Perhaps that was why he had failed to mention that the real reason for Bolitho's concern was that Belinda would be having their first child in just a matter of weeks. Sheaffe knew about it; it had even reached the London newspapers that the church here in Falmouth had been packed to the doors with officers and men of Bolitho's squadron on that special October day in 1801, last year. Perhaps he was jealous of that fact also?
Bolitho had said nothing. If Sheaffe wanted him to explain, to plead for a delay in the sailing date, he had not understood him at all.
He heard her steps on the flagged floor beyond the entrance and straightened his back.
Even with the sunlight behind her, and her face part hidden in shadow, she was beautiful. He never got tired of watching her, of the longing she roused in him. The sunlight touched her chestnut-coloured hair and the soft curve of her throat.
She said, "It's time."
Her voice was low and level, and Bolitho knew what the effort was costing her.
As if to mock their emotions he heard the hoofs of the two horses on the cobbles, the untroubled voices of the grooms.
She moved towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders. "I am so proud of you, dearest. My husband, a vice-admiral —" Her lips quivered and a new brightness in her eyes betrayed her distress.
He held her gently, her once slender body pressing against his as if the child was already with them.
"You must take every care while I am away, Belinda."
She leaned back in his arms and looked at him searchingly as if she needed to remember every detail.
"You are the one who must take care. You have seen to all my wants. Everyone is so kind, wanting to help, to be near, when all I need is you." She shook her head as he made to speak. "Don't worry, I will not break down. In spite of your leaving, I am happy, can you understand that? Each day in the past months has been like the first time. When you hold me it seems a new experience. When you enter me and we are one, I am filled with love for you. But I am not a fool and would never wish to stand between you and your other world. I see your eyes as you watch a ship sail into Carrick Roads, your expression when Thomas or Allday mentions some place or experience I can never share. When you return I shall be waiting, but wherever you are, we shall remain as one."
There was a tap at the door and Allday stood watching them, his homely face grave and uncertain.
"All ready, sir."
Allday, like an oak, who represented so much of that other world which Belinda had described. Now in his best blue coat and nankeen breeches he looked every inch a sailor, the coxswain of a vice-admiral. He had stayed at Bolitho's side since he had been a junior captain. Together they had seen fine and terrible sights, had suffered and rejoiced in equal proportions.
When he had been told of the unexpected and advanced promotion, Allday had remarked cheerfully, "Flag at the fore at last, eh, sir? Quite right too, in my opinion. Don't know what took 'em so long."
He saw Allday open the new coat for him to slip his arms into the sleeves. Once the impossible dream when he had paced the deck as a harassed lieutenant, or even when he had taken command of his first ship.
She was watching him, her chin raised, her fingers clasped as if to contain her thoughts and words.
"You look so handsome, Richard."
"That 'e does, ma'am." Allday patted the lapels into place and made certain that each bright epaulette with the twin silver stars was exactly right.
At sea it would be different, Allday thought. But here in the big house they had given him a real home. He looked away, unable to watch their faces. He was one of the family. Almost.
She said quietly, "I could come as far as Hampshire with you."
Bolitho held her again. "No. The ride to the Beaulieu River would take a lot out of you. Then there is the return journey. I'd be sick with worry."
This time she did not argue. Although neither mentioned it, each knew that a wrecked coach had once destroyed his happiness, another such accident had given both of them this new life.
Bolitho was grateful that he had to join his ship where it was too far for her to follow and risk an accident with their first child. It was bad enough to be leaving her when she most needed him, without that. Ferguson, his trusted steward, would be here in the house, and the doctor was within easy call. Bolitho's sister Nancy had been more at the house than in her own palatial residence with her husband the squire, who was known throughout the country as the King of Cornwall.
And next week Thomas Herrick's wife Dulcie would be coming all the way from Kent to keep Belinda company at the time of the birth.
Herrick, almost embarrassed by his promotion to rear-admiral, had been given command of a small squadron and had already sailed to Gibraltar for orders.
There would not be many familiar faces this time, Bolitho thought. Maybe it was just as well. No reminders. The doubts, like the successes, were best left in the past.
She said, "Take good care of yourself, Richard. I hate your leaving, but at the same time I understand why you must go."
Bolitho held her against him. Why were there never the right words until it was too late?
Ever since his return from the Admiralty with his secret orders she had somehow contained her disappointment, her dismay. Only once during the night had she exclaimed, "Why you? Must you go?" Then, like part of a bad dream, she had lapsed into an uneasy sleep, her question still unanswered.
He heard Allday's voice beyond the door, supervising the loading of some final piece of luggage aboard the carriage. Poor Allday, he thought. Off again after all he had endured with him as a prisoner of war in France. He was always there when he was needed, the relationship stronger than ever, and when Bolitho needed someone to confide in outside of his officers and the chain of command, Allday would be ready to speak out.
Often Bolitho had felt badly about Allday's loyalty. Beyond his service as his coxswain and friend he had nothing. No wife to keep house for him and await his return from the sea, no home beyond these walls. It did not seem fair to drag him off yet again when he had more than earned the right to put his feet firmly ashore for all time. But Bolitho understood that Allday would be resentful and hurt by the suggestion he should not accompany him.
I must leave now.
They walked together to the big double doors, quietly determined, dreading the actual moment.
The sunlight engulfed them like an enemy, and Bolitho looked at the carriage with something like hatred. He had already said his farewells to his sister, to Ferguson, his one-armed steward, to the many familiar faces who worked in and around the big grey house below Pendennis Castle.
He said, "I shall send word by the first available courier-brig. When I reach America I shall probably be required to return home immediately."
He felt her arm stiffen against his and despised himself for giving her hope.
Admiral Sheaffe had left him in doubt that the mission was important. To sail for Boston, "neutral ground," as he had called it, and there meet French and American officials to formalize the handing over of an island as part of the agreement made under the Peace of Amiens.
It all seemed wrong to Bolitho. To hand back an island to the old enemy which had been won with British blood. He had blurted out as much to Admiral Sheaffe. "We gained a peace, Sir Hayward, we did not lose the war!"
Perhaps in that cool Admiralty room it had sounded childish.
Sheaffe had replied calmly, "And we do not wish you to provoke a war either, sir!"
As if to finalize the moment of departure, one of the horses stamped its hoof on the cobbles.
Bolitho kissed her hard on the mouth and tasted the salt of her tears.
"I shall return, Belinda."
Very gently they prised themselves apart and Bolitho walked down the worn steps to the waiting carriage.
Allday was standing with a groom, but Bolitho gestured to the open door.
"Ride with me, Allday."
He turned and glanced back at her. Against the grey stone she looked strangely vulnerable and he wanted to hold her just once more.
The next instant he was in the carriage and the wheels were clattering over the cobbles and through the gates.
It was done.
Allday sat with his fingers clasped and watched Bolitho's grave features and tried to measure the depth of his mood.
Seven months ashore seemed a lifetime to Allday, although he knew better than to suggest as much to Bolitho. It was probably the longest he had been away from a King's ship since that first time when he had made his living here in Cornwall as a shepherd, when a man-of-war, one commanded by Bolitho, had dropped anchor and landed her press-gang to scavenge for hands. There had been several local men caught that day. Allday had been one, the steward Ferguson another. Poor Ferguson had lost an arm at the Saintes but, like Allday, had stayed with Bolitho ever since.
The warm air, the heavy scent of the countryside were making him drowsy, and he knew that although Bolitho wanted companionship for the long haul to the Beaulieu River in Hampshire where their next ship was lying, he did not want to gossip. There would be time enough for that in the weeks and months ahead.
Another ship. What would she be like? Allday was surprised that he could still be curious. In his strong position as the vice-admiral's personal coxswain he had nothing to fear from anyone. But he was too much of a seaman not to be interested.
Not a great first rate of a hundred guns or more, not even a new seventy-four like Benbow, Bolitho's last flagship, but the smallest ship of the line still in commission.
His Britannic Majesty's Ship Achates of sixty-four guns was one of a dying breed. More like an oversized frigate than a massive line-of-battle ship which could withstand the pounding and destruction of close action.
She was twenty-one years old, a true veteran, and had seen every kind of combat in her time. She had spent most of her recent years in the Caribbean and had sailed countless leagues from her base in Antigua to the far south along the Spanish Main.
Allday wondered uneasily why she had been allotted to Bolitho as his flagship. To his simple reasoning it seemed like one more slur. He should have been given a knighthood for what he had done and endured for England. But always there seemed to be someone in authority who nursed some dislike or hatred of the man for whom Allday would willingly die if need be.
He thought of the parting he had just witnessed. What a fine pair they made. The lovely lady with the long chestnut hair and the youthful vice- admiral whose hair was as jet-black as the day Allday had joined his ship as a pressed hand.
From the opposite seat Bolitho saw Allday's head loll into a doze and felt the strength of the man, was grateful for his presence here.
Allday had thickened out and looked as if nothing could ever break him. The oak. He smiled to himself in spite of his sense of loss at leaving Belinda when she most needed him.
He had known Allday like a raging lion on the reddened deck of one ship or another. And he had seen him in tears as he had carried Bolitho below when he had been badly wounded in battle. It was impossible to imagine any place without Allday.
Bolitho also thought about his new flagship for this special commission which would take him to America and the Caribbean.
There was comfort in knowing that her new captain was also a good friend. Valentine Keen, who had once been one of Bolitho's midshipmen, who had shared excitement and sorrow in very different circumstances. Achates' previous captain had died of a fever as his ship had sailed home from Antigua to the yard where she had been built to undergo a much needed overhaul and refit.
It would be good to have Keen as his flag-captain, he thought. He watched Allday's head fall to his chest and remembered it had been he who had once saved Keen's life, had personally cut a jagged splinter from his groin because he had not trusted the ship's drunken surgeon.
Excerpted from Success to the Brave by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1970 Alexander Kent. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was worth reading but not one of the best. After reading this many of the series you can almost guess the outcome.
If you want me to do reviews of what I read, you will have to give me something in return.