Sir Richard Bolitho returns from a wearing campaign in North American waters to take up a command in Malta. As England's long war with Napoleon reaches its end, will Richard Bolitho's longing for peace—both public and personal—be fulfilled?
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Sword of Honour
The Bolitho Novels: 23
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Vice -Admiral Sir Graham Bethune put down his pen and waited for the elderly Admiralty clerk to gather up the letters and despatches he had signed. As the tall double doors closed behind him, Bethune stood up and glanced at the nearest windows. Bright sunshine; he could even feel the warmth across the room, with a sky so clear that it was almost colourless.
He heard a clock chime, and wondered how the meeting was progressing along the passageway. Senior officers, lords of Admiralty, and civilian advisers who had been called here to discuss the state of the dockyards and the needs of the medical services. At the Admiralty, it was another ordinary day.
He moved restlessly to the window and opened it, and the sounds of London rose to greet him. The clatter of carriages and the jingle of harness, the cry of a street pedlar risking the wrath of Admiralty porters to sell his wares to the passing throng.
Bethune caught his own reflection in the window, and smiled. Once he had thought he would never hold such an appointment; now he could hardly imagine anything else. After ships and the sea, it had seemed like something foreign. He touched the front of his waistcoat. Graham Bethune, Vice-Admiral of the Blue, one of the youngest flag officers on the Navy List. Like the uniform, the appointment fitted him perfectly.
He leaned over the sill and watched the procession of people. Many of the carriages were open to the sunshine, revealing women in colourful hats and fine gowns. It was April of the year 1814, but the war was still a brutal fact.
Like most serving officers, Bethune had become accustomed to the exaggerated assurances and the promises of final victory. Reports arrived daily with news that Wellington's armies were breaking through one French strongpoint after another; the invincible Napoleon was claimed to be on the run, deserted by all but his faithful marshals and his Old Guard.
What did all those people down there really believe, he wondered. After so many years of war with the familiar enemy, was the prospect of peace still only a dream? He moved back into the room and stared at the painting on one wall, a frigate in action, sails pitted with shot, a full broadside spitting fire at the enemy. It was Bethune's last command. He had confronted two big Spanish frigates, unfortunate odds even for a captain as eager as he had been. After a brisk engagement, he had run one Spaniard ashore and captured the other. Flag rank had followed almost immediately.
He looked at the ornate clock with its simpering cherubs and thought of the one man he admired, perhaps envied, more than any other.
Sir Richard Bolitho was back in England, fresh from that other war with the United States; Bethune had seen the letter the First Lord of the Admiralty had sent to him in Cornwall, recalling him to London. Bolitho had been his captain all those years ago in the sloop-of-war Sparrow. Another war, but they had been fighting Americans even then, a new nation born of revolution.
No reason for the recall had been offered. Surely Sir Richard Bolitho deserved a rest after all he had done? He thought, too, of the lovely Catherine Somervell, who had come to this very office to see him. He often thought of them, together.
And when the impossible had come to pass, and there was peace again, permanent or not, what would happen to Bolitho, and to all the men he had known on his way up the ladder from midshipman's berth to Admiralty? What will happen to me? It was the only life he knew. It was his world.
The streets and seaports were full of crippled and tattered remnants of war, rejected by a life which had all but destroyed them. Bethune was sometimes surprised that he could still be sensitive about such matters. Perhaps he had inherited that trait, too, from Sparrow's youthful captain.
He heard voices in the adjoining room, where his clerk held unwanted visitors at bay. He looked at the clock again. Too early for a glass. Bethune did not drink heavily or overeat; he had seen too many of his contemporaries deteriorate because they did not heed such things. He took exercise when he could, a luxury after a ship's restricted quarters, and he enjoyed the company of women, as much as they enjoyed his. But he was discreet, or tried to be, and he told himself it was for the sake of his wife and his two young children.
His servant was standing in the doorway.
Bethune sighed. "What is it, Tolan?"
"Captain McCleod is here to see you, sir."
Bethune looked away. "Ask him to come in."
What had made him so nervous? Guilt? Thinking perhaps of Bolitho's mistress, who had faced the scandal and had triumphed?
The tall captain entered the room. He had an impassive, melancholy face; Bethune could not imagine him at sea, fighting a gale or the enemy.
The captain shook his head. Even that seemed mournful. "From Portsmouth, sir. By telegraph, just received." He glanced at the ceiling as if to see through it to the device which could link the Admiralty building to the south coast more swiftly than any courier, faster than any horse, provided the weather was perfect, as it was today.
Bethune opened it, and then hesitated. It was round, schoolboy writing, but afterwards he thought it was as though each word had been written in fire. Or blood.
He strode past his servant and the clerk at his desk, his steps seeming unusually loud in the deserted corridor. Great paintings watched him pass, sea-battles: courage and heroism, without the human agony which was so seldom shown.
A lieutenant jumped to his feet. "I'm sorry, sir, but the meeting is still in progress!"
Bethune did not even see him. He thrust open the door, and watched the mingled expressions of surprise, irritation, perhaps alarm.
The First Lord frowned. "Is it so urgent, Graham?"
Bethune wanted to lick his lips, to laugh, to weep. He had felt nothing like it before.
"From the admiral commanding at Portsmouth, my lord. A despatch has just been received."
The admiral said evenly, "Take your time."
Bethune tried again. It was a great moment, and he was a part of it, and yet all he could feel was sadness. "Marshal Soult's army was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Toulouse. Totally. Napoleon has abdicated, surrendered to the Allies, four days ago."
The admiral stood, very slowly, and looked around the table. "Victory, gentlemen." The word seemed to hang in the air. "If only brave Nelson could have seen it."
Then he turned to Bethune. "I shall see the Prince Regent immediately. Attend to it for me." He dropped his voice to exclude the others. "It could mean Paris for you, Graham. I would feel more secure with you there."
Bethune found himself back in his spacious office again, without remembering the return.
When he looked out of the window once more, nothing had changed, not the people nor the horses and carriages. Even the pedlar was still standing with his tray of wares.
The elderly clerk was hovering by the desk. "Sir?"
"Pass the word to the Officer-of-the-Guard for the First Lord's carriage and escort."
"At once, sir." He hesitated. "Difficult to accept, sir. Even to believe ..."
Bethune smiled and touched his arm, even as Bolitho might have done.
Difficult to accept? It was impossible.
Lieutenant George Avery reined his hired mount to a halt and leaned back in the saddle to admire the view. The house was beautifully designed; magnificent was the only description, he thought, and probably larger than the one where he had spent the night.
It had been a pleasant ride from central London to this place on the bank of the Thames, and it had given him time to think, to prepare for this meeting with his uncle, Lord Sillitoe of Chiswick. He had sensed the jubilant mood of the people all around him, had seen their smiles and waves when he had passed; apparently it was unusual to sight a naval officer on horseback.
But it was more than that, so much more. The impossible had become a fact, and it seemed as if every man and woman in the city was in the streets to make certain that the news was not just another cruel rumour. Napoleon, the tyrant, the oppressor who had sought to enslave a continent, was beaten, a prisoner of the victorious Allies.
This morning she had watched him while he dressed and readied himself for this meeting. He could still feel the power and the passion of their intimacy. Could this relationship, too, be more than a passing dream?
He glanced at a church clock. He was five minutes early. His uncle would expect it, even though it was said that he made a deliberate point of being late for his own appointments.
And yet, Avery scarcely knew him. His uncle, Sir Paul Sillitoe as he had been then, had suggested that he should apply for the appointment of flag lieutenant to Sir Richard Bolitho. As the date for that first meeting had drawn near, he had almost withdrawn the application, knowing that it would only end in another disappointment. He had been wounded, and had been a prisoner of war. Upon his exchange, he had been required to face a court martial for the loss of his ship, even though she had been lost through the captain's recklessness, and his own wound had rendered him helpless and unable to prevent his men striking to a superior enemy.
The memory of his first meeting with Bolitho, the hero and the legend, was very vivid; it would never leave him, and their association had restored him, had perhaps even made him something he might otherwise never have been.
But his uncle? A man of enormous power and influence; and now that Sillitoe had also become a personal adviser to the Prince Regent, that power was greatly feared, if not respected.
He patted the horse's flank, and spoke to the stable-hand who had come running to take his rein.
"See to her, will you. I doubt that I shall be here very long."
Doors opened before he reached them, the sun streaming in to greet him from windows that faced the Thames, and the slow-moving masts of local traders making use of the tide. A fine staircase, elegant pillars, but also a spartan lack of ornaments and paintings, which his uncle would doubtless find flippant, and obtrusive.
A hard-faced servant in gilt-buttoned livery confronted him in the spacious hallway. Avery had heard it said that most of Sillitoe's servants resembled prize-fighters, and now he saw that it was true.
"If you will wait in the library, sir." He did not drop his eyes, again, like a fighter wary of a treacherous attack.
Avery nodded in acknowledgement. The man did not ask for his name; he would know. Otherwise, he would not be here.
He walked into the library and stared out across the river. Peace. He felt the pain in his wounded shoulder, always a reminder, should he need one. He thought of her body arched against his; she had insisted on seeing the deep scar, and had kissed it with such gentleness that he had been both surprised and moved.
He caught sight of himself in a tall mirror; like a stranger, he thought. He still could not get used to the single epaulette on his shoulder.
They had all endured so much together. But when he tried to imagine the future, beyond the day or the week, it was like being lost, in a fog.
The war was over. Hostilities continued along the border of Canada and the United States, but that could not last much longer. And what of us? "We Happy Few," as Bolitho had often called them. Adam Bolitho was still in Halifax as flag captain to Rear-Admiral Keen; Captain James Tyacke would be waiting for a new appointment, with the frigate Indomitable paid off to await her own fate.
He stared at his reflection. Still only a lieutenant, with streaks of grey in his dark hair to show what the war had cost him. Thirty-five years old. He grinned, surprised that he was able to consider a future without prospects, once Sir Richard Bolitho came ashore for good. In his heart, it was what Bolitho wanted, and Avery felt very privileged to know the inner, private man. Brave in his decisions, unwavering in their execution, but after the cannon had fallen silent and the enemy's flag had come down through the smoke, Avery had seen the other man, sensitive, grieving for those who had fallen, because he had required it of them.
What then for himself? A command of his own? Perhaps a little schooner like the lost Jolie, although that was unlikely. The navy would begin ridding itself of ships and men as soon as the terms for peace were settled amongst the Allies. Countless soldiers and sailors would be paid off, unwanted, left to fend for themselves. It had happened before. It would always be so.
"If you will come this way, sir."
Avery left the library, very conscious of the silence; it made him realise how empty the place was. After a noisy, lively ship, it was to be expected. All sailors were like fish out of water when they came ashore. But compared with Bolitho's house in Cornwall, with its endless comings and goings of people from the farm and the estate, neighbours or well-wishers, this splendid residence echoed like a tomb.
His uncle rose from his desk as he entered, closing a large file which he had apparently been studying, although Avery sensed that he had been sitting facing the door for some while. To compose himself? That seemed unlikely. To get it over quickly, duty done, was that it?
They shook hands, and Sillitoe said, "That will be all, Marlow." A small man whom Avery had not noticed got up from another desk and scurried away. It must be his uncle's secretary but, typically, Sillitoe did not introduce him.
He said, "I have some claret. I think you will approve of it." He faced him again and Avery was very aware of the dark, compelling eyes, the hooded lids, the gaze which took in every detail. He could well imagine people fearing him.
"I am glad you are here. It becomes ever more difficult to find the time." He frowned slightly as another servant entered with the claret and glasses. "It is fortunate you were in London, and that you received my note." The stare was impassive, no hint of triumph or contempt. He added calmly, "How is Lady Mildmay, by the way?"
"She is well, sir. It seems there are few secrets left in London."
Sillitoe gave a faint smile. "Quite so. But then, you have not exactly taken pains to conceal your ... how shall we describe it? Your liaison with this lady, who, I gather, was the wife of your last captain? Of course I knew of it. And I am not certain that I approve, not that I expect you would care."
Avery sat down. What did it matter? I owe this man nothing.
He thought suddenly of Bolitho. I owe him everything.
"You will not have heard." Sillitoe took a glass and regarded it severely. "Sir Richard is recalled to London. He is needed."
Avery sipped the claret without tasting it. "I thought he was to be released from active duty, sir."
Sillitoe gazed at him over the rim of his glass, a little startled by the force of the words. He liked his nephew, and had felt moved to act on his behalf after he had been released from a French prison, only to face a court martial. A wretched and unnecessary affair, he had thought. But then, he had little time for the navy and its strictures and traditions. His elder brother had been a captain and had been killed in action; it had been that captain who had inspired the young Avery to enter the navy, and it had been that same man who had sponsored him as a midshipman. But Avery's outburst had taken him by surprise, and he did not like surprises unless they were his own.
Avery said, as though to himself, "Then he will still need me after all."
Sillitoe frowned. "I have a deal of influence. I am also a wealthy man, some might say very wealthy. I have business interests in this country, and in Jamaica and the Indies. I need someone of integrity." He smiled briefly. "And, if you like, honour."
Avery put down his empty glass. "Are you offering me an appointment, sir?"
Sillitoe paced to the window and back. "A new life, would be a fairer description."
Avery watched him, suddenly aware of Sillitoe's discomfort. He was ill at ease, and because it was a state unknown to him, he was unable to contain it.
"Why me, sir?"
Excerpted from Sword of Honour by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1998 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read all of the books in this series. This book was not good. I almost felt like I was reading an abridged version with much of the book left out. The action was choppy and the narrative lacking.