The Mouth of the Nile, 9th August, 1798: Admiral Nelson has sent Captain Nathan Peake on a desperate journey across the Middle East to convey a grim warning to British India. Bonaparte's army is poised to deliver a fatal blow to the source of Britain's wealth and power by marching overland to India. Arriving in Bombay, Nathan takes command of the East India Company's naval wing - the Bombay Marine - an under-armed and poorly crewed flotilla of sloops and gunboats. With these meager resources he must stop the flow of French supplies to their Indian ally and protect the Company's trade from the pirates and privateers swarming in the Bay of Bengal. But when Nathan discovers the truth behind the East India Company's honourable facade he confronts some tough personal choices.
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The Spoils of Conquest
A Nathan Peake Novel
By Seth Hunter
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Seth Hunter
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The Captain and the Consul
* * *
On the broad platform of the flagship's maintop, some ninety feet above the tranquil waters of the bay, two men were having a picnic. They had made themselves a nest of folded sails, and were shielded from the full force of the sun by a scrap of canvas strung between the futtock shrouds. Between them, on a pewter platter, were the bones of a dismembered fowl and next to it, a bottle of hock, now empty.
This indulgence apart, they seemed an odd couple to find aboard a British man-of-war, even given the exigencies of a service that was obliged to cast its net far and wide in the recruitment of personnel to fight the war against revolutionary France. One wore a blue uniform jacket with a worn epaulette at the left shoulder indicating the status of a post-captain, but it was a shabby, ill-fitting affair, and he wore grubby canvas ducks instead of breeches; he had not shaved for several days, and his naturally dark complexion was further blackened by several months' exposure to the Mediterranean sun. Moreover, he appeared start-lingly young for one so senior in rank, though in point of fact he had turned thirty on his last birthday, on the very day of the recent battle, and had been reflecting ever since on his approaching senility.
The other wore the loose-fitting robes of a Bedouin camel herder, which was not a rank normally associated with the King's Navy. He was a man of impressive stature, even in repose, and he had a turban round his head, a dagger at his belt, and a pair of soft camel-skin boots on his feet. He was some several years older than his com panion, his complexion even darker, and his beard considerably more pronounced, though shot through with grey.
Both men had their legs stretched out before them, their backs resting against the broad support of the mainmast, and their eyes closed.
This idyll was shortly to be disturbed by a small boy who was ascending rapidly towards them by means of the mainmast shrouds. Declining the open invitation of the lubber's hole, he swarmed upwards and outwards until his head appeared above the edge of the platform upon which the two men reclined. At which point, hanging backwards at an angle of some twenty degrees to the perpendicular, he took a moment of leisure to observe the recumbent forms. They were sufficiently wonderful, in the child's experience of the King's Navy, for his eyes to widen in surprise and his features to contort themselves into a delighted grin. He had not yet seen a crocodile or a camel or any other of the wonders of the Nile but this was almost as good.
'Do you have something to say for yourself or are you just come to gape?'
The grin vanished, to be replaced by an expression more becoming of a junior officer aboard the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, for, despite his extreme youth, the intruder wore the uniform of a midshipman.
'No, sir. Sorry, sir. Is it Captain Peake, sir?'
'It is, sir.'
With the agility of his brethren, the great apes, the youth propelled himself through the air, briefly defied gravity, and landed upon the platform with a light thud, respectfully touching his hat.
'The admiral's respects, sir, and he would be pleased to see you in his cabin, at your leisure –' His eyes slid to the camel herder – 'and also the gentleman that is with you.'
There was a slight emphasis upon certain of these words that might possibly have given offence to those of a more sensitive disposition, and not wishing to take any chances, having delivered himself of his message, the young man touched his hand to his hat, and stepped backwards into space.
Rather more sedately, and with a brief exchange of glances, the two men picked up their debris and followed.
They found the admiral in his cabin entertaining a civilian, dressed rather like an English squire, and as red-faced and travel stained as if he had been out with his hounds. He rose at their entrance and stood a little diffidently, with his hat held before him in both hands, running his fingers around the brim, an uncertain smile upon his face.
'Ah, and here they are,' the admiral proclaimed. 'Permit me to introduce Captain Nathaniel Peake, late of the frigate Unicorn, and Mr Spiridion Foresti, formerly British Consul to Corfu and the Seven Isles.'
If the admiral's visitor was surprised by these titles – being attached to so dishevelled a duo as were presented for his inspection – he hid it well.
'This, gentlemen, is Mr Hudson,' the admiral continued. 'Agent for the Levant Company in Cairo.'
The three men exchanged bows.
'Mr Hudson and I are acquainted,' declared the Bedouin in an English tongue that betrayed a strong flavour of the Levant. Indeed, there were few people of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean with whom Spiridion Foresti was not acquainted. Contrary to appearances, he was in fact Greek, and his business interests had for many years been in shipping. As the admiral had indicated, until quite recently he had represented British interests in the Ionian isles, but since their capitulation to the French and the loss of much of his business, he had focused upon the trade in information. He was, in short, a spy.
'Mr Foresti has been gathering intelligence of the French forces in Rosetta, and thought it wise to take precautions against discovery,' explained the admiral.
'Quite so.' Mr Hudson's expression indicated that if Mr Foresti wished to dress as an Arab that was entirely his own concern. Clearly, he had not felt the need to take similar precautions, despite the presence of above 40,000 French troops in the country.
'Mr Hudson has been telling me about Bonaparte's preparations for a descent upon India,' Nelson confided. 'I am sure he would not mind repeating it.'
Before Hudson could respond to his invitation, there was the sound of a bell – the first bell of the afternoon watch – which was promptly followed by the appearance of the admiral's steward with a bowl of lemon shrub. At the same time, from the deck above came the strains of 'Nancy Dawson', played badly on the fiddle, signalling the mess cooks to attend at the foot of the mainmast, where the yeoman of the hold, carefully watched by one of the ship's lieutenants, was about to mix the grog – a blend of lemon juice, sugar and rum which was held by many to be the principle cause of the British seaman's superiority to all other species of marine life.
The substance dispensed to the admiral's guests contained the same ingredients, but laced with egg white, which was thought to make it more suitable for the con sumption of officers and gentlemen, though it was considered effeminate by the lesser privileged. The admiral waited until the servant had departed before nodding for his guest to continue.
'As you are doubtless aware, the bulk of the French Army is currently encamped on the Plains of Giza just outside Cairo,' he reported, 'but shortly after their victory over the Mamalukes, one of Bonaparte's principle agents was despatched to the port of Suez to make arrangements for sending troops to India.'
The impact of this statement upon his audience was muted. If they had not known already, it was clearly no surprise to them.
'Two weeks ago,' Mr Hudson continued, a little put out by their indifference to his news, 'a detachment of four thousand infantrymen marched south from Giza. I think we may assume that this is the first contingent of Bonaparte's advance upon the Orient.'
'Do you by any chance know the name of this agent?' the captain enquired.
'I do, as a matter of fact. His name is Xavier Naudé and his official function is that of representative for the Compagnie du Levant.'
'You are acquainted with this man?' Nelson enquired of Mr Foresti.
'I have come across him in the past,' Foresti replied carefully. 'He is a senior officer of French intelligence who has also served in Venice and in Tripoli. I congratulate you, Mr Hudson. You may think me importunate, but did your informant speak of a woman among Naudé's following?'
Hudson looked startled. His eyes slid swiftly to the admiral, but receiving no help from that quarter he replied: 'Indeed. In fact, I can tell you between these four walls' – he clearly had no concept of the lack of privacy provided by a ship of war – 'that it was she who passed the information on to us in the first place, through an intermediary in Cairo.'
The reaction of his audience was at least as startling. The captain smiled, the consul laughed aloud. They had every appearance of two men enjoying a private joke together.
'This woman, also, is known to you?' Nelson enquired, looking from one to the other.
'Very much so,' replied the consul. 'She was, until recently, our best agent in Venice, though most Venetians knew her as the deputy prioress of the Convent of San Paola di Mare, which, thanks to her, was also the city's best casino.'
Nelson shook his head wonderingly. 'Those who trawl in deep waters net some very strange fish,' he remarked cryptically. The captain and the consul appeared somewhat taken aback by this observation, and he clarified it by explaining: 'The French spy and the Venetian nun. I do not know who is the more to be pitied.'
It was known that the admiral's abhorrence of the French was matched only by his distaste for the Church of Rome.
'Oh, the French spy, without a doubt,' Foresti assured him. 'For she is a very beautiful nun, and the spy is in thrall to her.'
'But she is with him by her own choosing?'
'I think not. In fact, Mr Hudson's information confirms me in this opinion' – he threw a glance at Captain Peake which revealed some previous discussion on the subject – 'and it is good to know that she still has our interests at heart, though I fear she may be in some personal danger as a result.'
'Well, that is as maybe,' the admiral replied, 'but I confess it is the danger that Monsieur Naudé poses that worries me more. I imagine from what we have heard that he may already be on his way to Mysore.'
'Mysore?' This was clearly not on Mr Hudson's horizon.
'The Sultan of Mysore is Bonaparte's principle ally in India,' the admiral explained, 'and an inveterate enemy ofthe British interest. I think we may assume that Naudé is being sent to liaise with him. Which makes it all the more imperative that Captain Peake completes his own preparations for the journey.'
Conscious, perhaps, that this might be taken as implying a certain tardiness on the captain's part, he turned to his visitor and explained: 'Mr Foresti, among his other concerns, has been making arrangements for Captain Peake's passage to Suez, and thence to Bombay to alert the Governor to the approaching danger, and to take whatever steps he can to alleviate it.'
The merchant was frowning again. 'I wonder if that is wise? I mean, to travel by such a route, with so many French patrols between here and Suez. It is not an easy journey at the best of times. The Bedouin, I am told, are killing every ferengee they encounter – after first abusing them most wickedly – on the grounds that they might be allied to the invaders.'
'And yet it does not appear to have caused your honourable self any great inconvenience,' the consul pointed out, with a smile that did not quite take the edge off the remark.
'That is because I travelled by boat upon the Nile,' the merchant replied evenly, 'with a Dutch passport and a cachet de passage from the French quartermaster general, which cost me a small fortune in bribes. But I suppose you must have some influence among the Bedouin,' he added, in a clear reference to Mr Foresti's appearance.
'I would not count on it,' the captain interposed briskly, before they resorted to fisticuffs, 'but as for myself, I have passed through French lines before, in one guise or another,and Mr Foresti's tailor might be prevailed upon to fashion me some garments alike to his own, though I would prefer they were not so flashy.'
'And it is rather late in the day to be sending the captain by way of the Cape,' Nelson observed, for this was the favoured route from England to India. 'However,' he exposed Captain Peake to the severe gaze of his singular eye, 'the one thing we must avoid at all costs is these despatches falling into the hands of the French.'
'Well, the direct route is by way of Scanderoon,' Mr Hudson proposed, with an apologetic glance towards the captain. 'If you do not mind the plague, and the Turks, and the brigands on the road to Aleppo.'CHAPTER 2
The Flight of the Pigeon
'Scanderoon?' queried Nathan of his companion when they had returned to their eerie on the top-mast. 'I take it you know where that is.'
Spiridion looked at him with surprise and some amusement. 'You mean you do not?'
'Not the faintest idea,' the captain admitted blithely. 'I did not like to say, but I knew you would know.'
'I suppose I should be flattered,' the Greek sighed. 'Well, it has several names. Scanderoon is what the English call it, in their vulgar fashion. A crude rendering of Iskanderun, which is its Turkish name. The Venetians call it Alexandretta – little Alexandria – for it is on the site of the port built by Alexander, after his great victory over the Persians at Issus, of which I am sure you will have heard.'
'Of course,' the captain acknowledged with a small bow, 'and I am obliged to you for reminding me. But where in God's name is it?'
'It is on the coast of Hatay, a province of the Ottoman empire, about 400 miles to the north-east. It was once the great port of the world, at the western end of the Silk Road, but now is of little account.'
'Because of the plague,' Nathan enquired coolly, 'or the brigands, or the Turks?'
'All three,' Spiridion confirmed with a smile. 'And some more you do not know of yet.'
They set out early the following morning in a species of coastal trader known by the same name as the port, for it was unique to that region: a form of schooner but rather broad in the beam and blunt in the bow, with three short masts bearing three large, lateen sails. Her given name was the Peristeri, which Spiridion translated as the Pigeon, a bird she somewhat resembled and which he declared appropriate to their mission.
'And why is that?' Nathan asked him warily, for the pigeon was not the most heroic of images.
'Because there is a particular breed of pigeon – which we also call a scanderoon – used at the time of Alexander to carry messages between his commanders, and still used for that purpose by merchants in the region – and of course, spies.'
'It can talk, can it, this bird?'
'Of course it cannot talk.' Spiridion frowned. Nathan's humour sometimes passed him by. 'The message is attached to its leg.'
'So I am become a scanderoon,' Nathan reflected moodily, 'a carrier pigeon.'
Privately, he was still devastated by the loss of his ship, and had hoped the admiral might have given him one of the French prizes. Even the most battered would have been a considerable improvement on his present transport. The Peristeri was a Greek vessel, which had been bound for Cyprus when it was appropriated as a packet for the delivery of Nelson's despatches. She was not built for speed, or for conflict, though she carried a pair of swivel guns in the bow and a 6-pounder at the rear as a deterrent to pirates – or, more likely, as Spiridion said, to discourage inspection by the Turkish Revenue cutters, for she was almost certainly a smuggler. Her present cargo, according to the manifest, was beans, which often disguised a multitude of sins, and she provided a few small cabins at the stern for the convenience of paying passengers, though you would have to be very poor or very desperate, Nathan thought, to pay for a passage on the Pigeon.
There were five in his party. Spiridion, of course, who had agreed to accompany him on at least part of the journey; his servant George Banjo – a giant African who had once been a gunner's mate in the Royal Navy and now acted as Spiridion's bodyguard and partner in crime; Nathan's particular friend, Lieutenant Martin Tully, who was to assume command of one of the sloops in his squadron if and when they arrived in Bombay; and a young volunteer by the name of Richard Blunt, who had been recommended to Nathan by the admiral as having expressed a desire to see the Orient. Nathan suspected an ulterior motive for dispensing with his services which would become apparent to him during the course of their journey, but thus far Mr Blunt had displayed no obvious criminal tendencies, and evidenced no mental instability other than a tendency to daydream. He would undertake the duties of a servant – at least until they reached India, when Nathan had promised to find him more suitable employment.
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