1797: Britain stands alone against the forces of Revolutionary France. A victorious French Army, led by the youthful Napoleon Bonaparte, is poised to invade Britain. And in his country's darkest hour, Captain Nathan Peake finds himself imprisoned by his own side on the Rock of Gibraltar charged with treason. To prove his innocence Nathan must uncover the great deception that masks the French war aims. Is the great armada being assembled in Toulon bound for the shores of Great Britain or Egypt? His secret mission to discover the truth about Napoleon's invasion plans will hurl him into two of the greatest battles of the 18th century.
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The Flag of Freedom
A Nathan Peake Novel
By Seth Hunter
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Seth Hunter
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The Black Sheep
* * *
The British Mediterranean fleet off Cadiz, 7 July 1797. A Sunday, and the ships were rigged for church, though it was not the chaplains who read the lesson, nor was it from The Book of Common Prayer:
If any person in or belonging to the fleet shall make, or endeavour to make, any mutinous assembly upon any pretence whatsoever, every person offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of the court martial, shall suffer death.
The solemn voice of the Flag Captain rang out across the sluggish waters, and in the silence that followed, other, more distant voices could be heard, as if echoing down the long line of fighting ships.
... shall suffer death ... death ... death ... death.
The Articles of War, as devised by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, left little room for compromise, and as if to emphasise the point, the four corpses hanging from the yardarms of the flagship twisted a little on their ropes to provide a creaking chorus to the sombre lesson from the book of King's Regulations; the ships gently rising and falling on the slight swell like bobbing gulls, and the men standing grim and silent at their divisions.
The main deck of the flagship was unusually crowded, for the Admiral had ordered that every ship in the fleet should send two boatloads of seamen to witness the punishment meted out to their former comrades. And so they had. But no one looked at the bodies swinging from the yardarm. As if by common consent, every eye was averted from the bloated and discoloured faces. Instead, the gaze of a thousand men was fixed upon the quarterdeck where the Admiral stood at the side of his Flag Captain with the rest of the ship's officers in support – and four ranks of red-coated Marines providing a solid wedge of bayonet and muscle between rulers and ruled.
Among the officers stood a man wearing the uniform of a Post-Captain. It was an ill-fitting uniform, for it had been borrowed for the occasion from one of slighter build, and this, together with certain other of his features, gave him an air of slightly awkward individuality. He was a month short of his twenty-ninth birthday but looked younger – younger than many of the lieutenants and even some of the midshipmen aboard the flagship. His hair was dark and his countenance more swarthy than was the norm among those honest, red, perspiring English faces: he might have been a Spaniard or, worse, a Frenchman – a misfortune of which he was more than usually aware at this critical moment in his career.
His name was Peake. Nathaniel Peake. But his friends called him Nathan, and despite his appearance he was an Englishman – or at least half of one on his father's side – and as loyal a subject of King George, at least in his own estimation, as any man afloat. (He could not speak of those ashore, being but little acquainted with the breed.) Despite the uniform, he was at present without a command: his ship, the Unicorn, having run upon the Rock of Montecristo and foundered with all hands while he was on business ashore – a circumstance which could also be construed as an offence under the Articles of War.
He had been summoned to the flagship for an interview with the Admiral, and while it was unlikely to turn out as badly as it had for the four men swinging at the yardarm, he could not help but consider that the present occasion was not auspicious. Being ashore upon the King's business should not, in all fairness, be regarded as either wilful or negligent, but there were certain ambiguities, certain subtleties, in the nature of that business which gave the Captain especial cause for con cern. Besides which, he was not overwhelmed by the capacity of a naval court to dispense fairness, or even justice – the recent trial being, in his view, a case in point – and while he had every confidence in the judgement of his fellows when it came to seafaring, he was less sure of their reasoning in the finer points of the law.
As the lesson drew to a close, it was an earlier article that occupied his private thoughts:
If any officer, mariner, soldier, or other person of the fleet, shall give, hold or entertain intelligence to or with any enemy or rebel without leave from the King's Majesty or his commanding officer, every such person so offending, and being convicted by the sentence of a court martial, shall be punished with death.
The Captain had, during his short career, entertained a great deal of intelligence with the King's enemies, and though in his opinion he had always had the King's leave to do so – or at least that of his commanding officers – he was not entirely sure that the present company would see it in quite the same light. Particularly not his present commanding officer, Admiral Sir John Jervis.
Nathan glanced towards this godlike figure as he gazed down upon the ship's company – as God Himself might gaze down upon His ungrateful Creation, Nathan considered, in the days and centuries following the Fall.
Fanciful though this notion was, it could not be denied that the Admiral was in a most ungenerous mood.
A few months previously, he had presided over the defeat of the Spanish fleet – the fleet presently locked up in Cadiz by the British blockade. Nathan had played his part in this, albeit as a passenger, and was proud to have done so. He was not convinced that it was as great a victory as the British government had subsequently proclaimed – only four Spanish ships in total having struck their colours – but it was an opinion he wisely kept to himself in the present company. Back home, he had been assured, the church bells had been rung from one end of the country to the other in honour of the brave boys in blue, and there had been a mood of popular rejoicing. For a time the Admiral and his men had basked in the approval of Parliament, press and public – a rare concordance. But then Parliament, press and public were united in their hunger for victory, no matter how insubstantial.
There had been precious little to celebrate since the start of the war, back in 1793, when the great powers of Europe had also achieved a rare unity in their bid to crush the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. But Paris had stood; the Revolution had endured. And as the years went by, the tide of war had swung against the monarchists. New French armies – raised by a levée en masse – had stormed across Germany and Northern Italy. The Pope had been forced to pay tribute to keep them out of Rome. The ancient Republic of Venice, mistress of the seas, had been torn apart, the British fleet driven from the Mediterranean. Holland and Spain had even gone so far as to change sides, if only in the hope of claiming a share of the spoils, and even the Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna, brother of the murdered Queen Marie Antoinette, was now thought to be seeking a humiliating compromise with the regicides in Paris.
Little wonder that the news of a single naval victory off Cape St Vincent had caused such rejoicing back in England.
But it had not lasted long.
Early that month, news had arrived of a mutiny at Spithead, the home base of the Channel fleet. The brave boys in blue had apparently refused to sail until the Admiralty agreed an improvement in their pay and conditions. The contagion had spread to the North Sea fleet at the Nore, where by all accounts the hands had turned out their officers and refused to join the blockade of the Dutch fleet. Instead they had elected a com mittee of representatives on the French model, imposed their own blockade of London and threatened to sail up the Thames and lay siege to Parliament.
A terrible fear had spread through the commanders at sea. Sir John Jervis had resolved to stamp out the first signs of mutiny as soon as they appeared. And a complaint against excessive punishment had provided him with what he would doubtless consider to be just cause.
Which was why four dead bodies were now swinging from the yardarm of the flagship and the word 'Death' echoed down the long line of warships off Cadiz.
The shrill wailing of the boatswain's pipes signified that proceedings had come to an end. The off-duty watch was dismissed for dinner. The visiting seamen returned to their own ships. The Admiral and his entourage disappeared below.
Having nothing else to do, Nathan tarried on the quarter deck. No one spoke to him. He had begun to suspect he was regarded as something of a pariah, a black sheep. His fellow officers had sympathised with him over the loss of his ship, but being as superstitious as any of the foremast jacks, they no doubt thought that misfortune was catching and wished to avoid too close a contact with a source of infection.
He did not have long to wait. A lieutenant presented the usual respects and begged to inform him that the Admiral would be happy to see him as soon as his duties permitted. The words were a mere courtesy. Bracing himself for the worst, Nathan followed the officer below.
Admiral Jervis was at his desk, its surface entirely covered in papers. He was not alone. His secretary, Benjamin Tucker, was in attendance, and there was another man in civilian dress, unknown to Nathan, who looked upon him keenly as he entered the cabin.
The stern windows were open to the sea but the air was humid and the Admiral's ruddy countenance was slick with sweat. He had taken off his wig, and what little hair he had was plastered thinly across his scalp. He looked older than he had on the quarterdeck and less imposing, but no more amiable. Nathan had seen a portrait of him in his youth when he had appeared every inch the dashing young officer, but there was little of that dash now. His eyes had shrunken in his skull and grown hooded, and his nose, which had always been large, now appeared more like to a beak than ever, so that Nathan, who may well have been biased, had the impression of a malevolent old buzzard glowering over the corpse of his prey.
When Nathan entered, the Admiral was dictating a note to his secretary. The part that Nathan overheard was in Jervis's usual forthright style:
'Furthermore, I am pained to note that all the lieutenants are running to belly. They have been too long at anchor. I have therefore issued a general order to block up the entering ports that they may be obliged to come and go by climbing over the hammocks. I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient et cetera, et cetera ... Ah, Peake, so there you are.'
It was the first time Nathan had engaged with the Admiral at close quarters and he had good reason to feel apprehensive. Jervis was a fierce disciplinarian, famous for treating officers and men with the same harsh severity. Hangings might be uncom mon, but lesser punishments were meted out with a frequency – and a disregard for human dignity – that disturbed not a few of his officers. Just a few days since, he had ordered a young midshipman to be courtmartialled for allowing his boat's crew to plunder a Spanish fishing vessel. Nathan had no objection to that – the midshipman was entirely out of order – but it was not enough for Jervis that the court had ordered the officer to be deprived of his rank and stripped of his uniform before the whole ship's company. He had personally intervened to order the man's head shaved and a notice hung around his neck describing the crime – and then, as a further humiliation, made him solely responsible for cleaning the ship's privies until further notice.
But he could be extremely generous at times, and was said to be entirely unmoved by rank and privilege. You were as like to suffer a withering rebuke if you were the son of a cowherd or a peer of the realm.
'Well, sir,' he growled when Nathan had made his bow, 'I hope you are not another of these fools who think a rogue should not be hanged upon a Sunday.'
Nathan was well aware that the timing of the execution had aroused further disquiet among the officers. The men had been condemned late on Saturday night and it had been widely anticipated, even by the President of the Court, that their sentence would be deferred until the Monday, out of respect for the Sabbath. The Admiral, however, had begged to differ.
Nathan assured him that he had no strong views on the matter and was rewarded with a dismissive grunt. But at least he was invited to sit.
'I do not believe you have met Mr Scrope.' Jervis indicated the civilian, who acknowledged Nathan with something between a nod and a bow. 'He is sent by their lordships on a special commission – to keep us up to scratch.'
This riposte was greeted with a thin smile. The Admiral was noted for his wry sense of humour.
Nathan viewed the stranger with renewed interest. Shortly after rejoining the fleet he had sent a confidential report to their lordships of the Admiralty detailing what he had learned, while on his 'business ashore', of French intentions in the Eastern Mediterranean. He wondered now if Scrope had been sent to discuss the implications of this, perhaps even to propose a plan of action. Jervis had given no indication of the fellow's status, but it was reasonable to suppose from the Admiral's remark that he was no mere clerk.
He was probably in his early thirties, Nathan estimated, modestly dressed but with the look of a man who has a considerable opinion of himself. It was difficult to perceive the reason for this, certainly in his appearance. His face had the unhealthy pallor of a civil servant who rarely sees the outside of a room in Whitehall and then only when it is dark. Even his eyes seemed drained of colour, though there was the merest hint of blue in them, like a dying promise in a wintry sky, and the long, sandy lashes had something of the appearance of a web.
There was much about him that reminded Nathan of one of those représentants en mission that the National Convention in Paris sent out into the provinces from time to time to ensure that the populace there kept to the path of righteousness, with the help of a large contingent of soldiers and a portable guillotine.
These reservations apart, his presence at this interview was encouraging. Nathan dared hope that it might presage a new mission for himself, either to learn more of the French plans or to forestall them. But the Admiral's next words swiftly dispelled this conceit.
'Their lordships have been debating how we might persuade the Dons to come out and fight,' he said. 'And they have hit upon an ingenious plan. I wonder that I had not thought of it myself. Perhaps Mr Scrope would be so good as to explain it to you.'
It was difficult to know if the Admiral's tone was sardonic or not. A great many officers had made the mistake of mis judging his mood and suffered the consequence. Scrope clearly took no chances but gave another of his meagre smiles and replied that he was simply the bearer of a proposal – a mere suggestion – and that neither he nor their lordships would presume to direct the victor of the Battle of St Vincent in matters of strategy.
'Oh come, sir, you are too diffident, too retiring by half. Tell the Captain what is proposed.'
Mr Scrope turned his pallid countenance upon Nathan. 'It behoved their lordships to suggest that the Spanish fleet might be induced to leave the shelter of Cadiz and engage in battle if the port were to come under some form of a bombardment,' he confided.
His voice was courteous enough but there was something in those pale blue eyes that suggested an element of disdain, as though he resented the necessity of an explanation, especially to one whom he clearly considered an underling.
Nathan inclined his head in the pretence of deliberation. In fact, his mind was entirely engaged with the question of why he was being consulted in the matter when there were several Rear-Admirals and above a score of Post Captains – consider ably senior to himself – who might be summoned by means of a simple signal, if not a modest hail.
Perhaps it was a test. The kind of hypothetical problem he had dreaded when obliged to undertake his examination for lieutenant.
Excerpted from The Flag of Freedom by Seth Hunter. Copyright © 2012 Seth Hunter. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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