Newly-promoted Captain Nathan Peake has been dispatched to the Caribbean to take command of the British navy's latest frigate, the 32-gun Unicorn, a ship with an already tragic history of mutiny and murder. While Peake settles in, the Revolutionary authorities in Paris send out the Virginie—the best 44-gun warship in the French fleet—on a secret mission to spread war, rebellion, and mayhem from the shores of Cuba to the swamps of the Mississippi Delta. While the Unicorn embarks on her epic duel with the Virginie, Peake confronts the seductive charms of Sabine Delatour, the witch-queen of the Army of Lucumi; the intrigues of the American agent Gilbert Imlay; and a lethal combination of Barbary pirates and Irish rebels.
About the Author
Seth Hunter is the pseudonym of the author of a number of highly acclaimed novels for adults and children. He has written and directed many historical dramas for British television, radio, and the theatre.
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The Tide of War
By Seth Hunter
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Seth Hunter
All rights reserved.
On the Beach
COMMANDER NATHAN PEAKE of His Britannic Majesty's Navy stood up to his knees in water, bearded, browned by the sun, his canvas ducks rolled to the thigh and a straw hat upon his head: the very Neptune of his domain, save that instead of the traditional trident he carried a large net, this being considered a more suitable implement on the south coast of England for the hunting of that native delicacy, the prawn.
A movement in the mud at his feet, the merest clouding of the pristine waters and he had it: a slender crustacean about the size and colouring of a grasshopper but by no means as pert, with twitching antennae as long as its body, and thin scuttling legs. They scuttled in vain. Into the bucket it went to join its five brothers — or sisters. All as one in the pot.
"Encore! Et encore une fois!"
Looking up, Nathan beheld the figure of a small boy who had scrambled to the top of a neighbouring rock with a large bucket clutched gingerly in both hands.
"Vingt crevettes. J'ai gagne. Je suis le vainqueur, n'est ce pas?"
He looked so happy Nathan did not have the heart to remind him to speak English, though the lapse into a foreign tongue — the tongue of their past and present enemy — would have called for a sharp rebuke in certain quarters not so very far from here.
"Well done," Nathan replied in the King's English. "Yes, you are the victor, Alex — for I have but six."
"ça suffit, monsieur?"
"Yes. It is enough. We will have a rare feast. Do you want to go home now?"
The boy looked at him uncertainly and Nathan knew he was trying to guess what Nathan wanted to do. Or more to the point, what Nathan wanted him to do: to carry on splashing in the rock pools in the warm September sunshine or return to the dubious sanctuary of Windover House and the English lesson that was scheduled to start at five o'clock precisely.
"If you wish it, sir," said the boy, in a diplomatic, if heavily accented English, and with an expression that pulled on Nathan's heartstrings.
They clambered over the rocks together and dropped down on to the thin strip of sand exposed by the retreating tide. Over to the east, beyond the meagre outlet of the Cuckmere River, were the long line of cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, curving away towards the distant hump of Beachy Head. The sun bounced off their chalk-white faces and shattered into a billion gold pieces on the flat-iron surface of the sea, as empty as on the third day of Creation. But no, as Nathan shielded his eyes against the glare he could make out something of a later construct, a pair of triangular red sails about halfway between Beachy Head and the Cuckmere. It stirred a distant memory and for a moment, indeed, he imagined she was his old adversary, the Fortune, a big, heavily armed lugger owned by Mr. Williams of Shoreham, a notorious smuggler who had plagued the Revenue officers along the South coast for a decade or more. But this was not the Fortune. The haze had misled him. She was a smaller vessel — a fishing boat or coaster. But the sight brought a flood of memories and he stayed a while gazing out to sea while his mind wandered to other places, other adversaries.
It was an encounter with the Fortune one dark night off the Cuckmere that had first sent him to France on his chequered careeras a blockade runner and secret agent in the service of the King's chief minister, William Pitt. He glanced down at the marks on his legs, stripes almost, like the markings on a tiger, save that they were a shameful red. There were more on his chest and back and buttocks from the flaying he had received in the Maison d'Arrêt in Paris. They would heal in time, he had been assured, and indeed they were much faded already. But there were other scars that would take longer, if they healed at all.
Alex tugged at his sleeve but even the voice, the accent and the way he pronounced it, Nat-Ann, reminded Nathan of Sara.
Sara, Countess of Turenne, Nathan's lover and Alex's mother, who had died on the guillotine.
Nathan had played his part in the coup that had consigned Sara's killers to the same fate and that had promised an end to the dark days of what the French called the Terror. But the war continued and Nathan knew he should be a part of it: needed to be a part of it. He was still officially the master and commander of the Speedwell, an American barque in the King's service, but he had been promised a captaincy and the command of a frigate by no less a personage than the Earl of Chatham, First Lord of the Admiralty. But the promise had yet to materialise and Nathan had no spirit to remind him of it. He knew this was a part of his grieving for Sara, as if a part of him, too, had died, and that the only cure for this affliction was action. But he was seized by a dreadful lethargy: a sense that nothing mattered and that in any case he could make little difference one way or another.
And so he played nursemaid to Sara's son. And played in rock pools. And rode the Downs for long hours alone or walked beside the meandering Cuckmere and the indifferent but curiously healing sea, comforted by the rhythms of the waves. Or at least drugged; numbed as if by some slow-acting opiate or belladonna released into his mind, calming his destructive rages, poisoning those parts of the psyche that betrayed a man to love.
Perhaps in time he would become as indifferent as the sea.
They walked on, up the sloping shingle to the little cluster of fishing huts and upturned boats and net-drying sheds where the beach ended and the marshes began and where they had left their pony to graze while they scavenged among the rock pools. Now Nathan called her to them and harnessed her to the little trap, and they climbed in with their buckets at their feet and followed the raised track beside the Cuckmere, inland towards home.
Nathan's home, if not the boy's. Not yet.
But it was his fond hope that Alex, orphaned and in a strange land, would learn to love it as he did, or at least to make the best of it.
Nathan had been much the same age when he had first come here from America with his mother and had spent the happiest days of his life here, running wild with a pack of lads and dogs as reckless and as reprobate as himself. He knew it as no other place on earth, and more of its secrets, and its villainies, than his father and his tutors would have wished.
But for the moment he was content to show the boy its gentler nature, instructing him in the English names of the plants and wild flowers he knew as they plodded up from the beach.
"Sea Aster" — pointing at a clump of mauve and yellow flowers that grew close by the shore —"and see there, that yellow plant, like a flame? We call it Toadflax. Toad. Crapaud. A toad. Because it is a weed — useless. Like Johnny Crapaud, that we call the French."
He grinned to soften the insult. The boy looked puzzled. The English sense of humour was still something of a mystery to him.
"I am sorry; I must not tease you. Now here is another you should know, much more useful." He pointed to the dark green plant growing by the river, a little browned here and there by the sun. "That is samphire, one of my favourites because you can eat it. L'herbe de Saint Pierre in French. I don't know what you use it for, but we eat it with fish. It's very salty but it will go very well avec nos crevettes." He stopped the pony, jumped down and leaped along by the side of the river, plucking up a great handful of samphire and bringing it back to drop in the bucket with the sad-looking prawns.
They plodded on, up through the marshland beside the placid river, past the indifferent herons stalking the shallows, and once they saw the flashing blue of a kingfisher. Up into the meadows below the deserted village of Exceat, wiped out by the Black Death four hundred years ago, its stone ruins hiding beneath fields of golden celandine and great white dishes of cow parsley and other more interesting of God's creation, or the Devil's.
"See that?" Nathan pointed with his whip at a feathery plant with flat white flowers that grew in great profusion among the grasses on the river bank. "Its real name is yarrow but the locals call it Old Man's Mustard — the Old Man being the Devil, do you see?"
The poor boy's frown suggested otherwise but Nathan continued regardless.
"They say he uses it in his spells when he wants to harm. When I was younger and got in a scrap I'd use it to stop a nosebleed, but of course the folk around here, they always see the Devil in things."
Nathan had learned his botany — and much besides — from Old Abe Eldridge, his father's head shepherd, highly spiced with legend and superstition.
They crossed the river by the little stone bridge beyond Exceat and began to climb up into the Downs towards Littlington through clouds of gossamer seeds floating in the still air and hoards of Daddy Long Legs bowling through the sun-bleached grass as if they were off to a ball.
"Beaucoup des papillons," the boy pointed out. Then, struggling to correct himself: "So many butter-flea." Indeed the hillside seemed to be alive with them, an ephemeral lilac-blue haze floating above the grass but almost certainly the effect of the field scabious that grew here or vervain, or a mixture of the two.
"Both are used in healing," Nathan explained. "Scabious for the scabies or dandruff. Dandruff. Pour la tete" — scratching the boy's head for his better understanding —" and vervain for almost anything — from itchy heads to sore bums. Because it was believed to grow on Calvary, do you see, and they used it to staunch Christ's wounds when he was taken down from the cross, though as I explained to Old Abe, the ignoramus, 'The dead don't bleed,' I said. And he said that was blasphemous and he would tell on me to the vicar, and I would be publicly denounced from the pulpit and get a beating from my tutor. But he didn't in case I was in the right of it and he was wrong, ha ha."
On they climbed up through the woods, past a few lingering foxgloves — Dead Man's Fingers in Abe's grim lexicon — and out again, stopping once more for Nathan to point out a plant with a purple flower that was called the Carline Thistle, "Named after a King of France, Charlemagne, who prayed to God for help when his army was hit by the plague and an angel appeared and told him to shoot an arrow into the air, and whichever plant it landed upon, it would provide the cure."
"The King of France," the boy nodded sagely, grasping at what little he had understood of this helpful anecdote.
"Charlemagne," Nathan repeated. "But the people here could not pronounce it as well as we scholars so they called it Carline. The Carline Thistle, wearing the purple of the King, do you see, or an Emperor."
"Is it he that is call Louis Capet," enquired the boy, "that is make to die at the guillotine?"
"No," said Nathan quietly. "No, not that one."
The guillotine and the memory of another who had died upon it cast a shadow over their journey and they were quiet as the pony plodded on through Littlington and out again into the high Downland, with Windover Hill rising steeply to their right, peppered with Nathan's father's flocks.
Could the boy ever be at home here? It seemed impossible now to Nathan, in this black mood, that he should enjoy the same careless childhood as had he. He could not run wild with the local youth. Not with that accent. They would tear him limb from limb. He was doomed to be a stranger in a foreign land. The land of the enemy.
Nathan began to consider other problems of bringing the boy up in England. Alex had been christened a Catholic and appeared to have absorbed at least some of its teaching. How — in Revolutionary France? Nathan did not care to ask. But should it be continued? Would Sara want him to be brought up a Catholic? Was she a — what did you call it? — a communiant? Nathan did not know. It was not something they had discussed. They'd had so little time together. But her family had been Catholic. Her father had been a Scottish soldier of fortune, a supporter of the Papist Stuarts who had fled to France after the Rising of '45. And her husband had been a member of one of the great Catholic families of France. Alex had inherited his title — at least as far as the royalists were concerned. He was Charles Louis Alexandre Tour de l'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne. He should at least be given the choice of a Catholic upbringing.
It was easier now in England since the Catholic Relief Act. Priests were now permitted to say the Mass in public, and there were no longer penalties for hearing it said. Catholics could even build churches, provided they did not have a steeple or a bell and did not lock the door during the ceremony so that they might plot treason. They could even open schools.
But where to find them? Nathan did not know of any. And his father would surely be opposed to any such scheme for he was an upstanding member of the Church of England and a Tory. He could not abide Papists. Nathan had often heard him say so.
So many problems.
"So many sheeps," said the boy, making an effort to resume their converse which, for all its difficulties, was better than silent contemplation.
"Sheep," Nathan corrected him absently. "Yes. It is the great woolsack of England. They reckon there are two hundred thousand ewes in the thirty miles between Eastbourne and Steyning. Deux cents milles moutons," he repeated to make sure the boy had understood. It was the kind of fact that, if absorbed, would impress his father.
The boy shook his head wonderingly. "Is many, many sheeps." But something seemed to be troubling him. "How you know this?" he demanded suddenly.
"How do I know? Because I have counted them."
"You count zem — all of zem?"
"All of zem. Them."
"How long it take you?" With suspicion. "Oh, all night sometimes."
"You count zem at night?"
"Yes. It is the only way. They stand out you see, with the white coats, in the moonlight. And they do not move around so much at night."
The boy brooded on this for a while as they began to climb towards the farm passing small flocks coming down from the high Downs, driven by the shepherds and their dogs, to feed on the clover and the mustard in the leys.
They approached the farm along a broad chalk track lined with dusty hedgerows, passing labourers walking back from the fields with their scythes and their hoes, past a team of oxen swinging their great heads and blowing gently through moist nostrils, the drover touching the rod to his straw hat by way of a salutation and Nathan touching his whip to his. On through the farmyard scattering frantic hens and indignant geese, past a row of farm cottages where those too old or young for gainful employment sat or played in the late afternoon sun. Round by the noxious pond and up the slight rise between stately elms and the ancient stone gateposts — one lion, one unicorn, no gate — and on to the house. Windover House. Nathan's home.
There had been a house at Windover before the Conquest, its last Saxon thane slain with the last Saxon king, it was said, on the bloody field at Senlac and the manor given to the pro-Norman Church. In whose custody it had remained until the Reformation when the monks were given their marching orders and the long reign of the squires began.
The Tudor house of those days with its half-timbered frame and mullioned windows still remained, now a mere wing facing the farm, but a latter and more prosperous generation had built a grander house of brick and local flint and great tall windows looking out over the valley with the silver ribbon of the Cuckmere like a snail's trail far below and the steeple of Alfriston church just visible above the ridge that concealed the village. A stable block had been added with a clock tower. And some more sensitive soul had incorporated a sunken garden into the complex with an ornamental pool and a fountain and a wall to protect the less robust species of plant from the salt-laden wind. And then Nathan's father had come along with his contribution — a pair of bronze cannon, taken from a French third-rate at the Battle of the Saints, and planted in the herbaceous border below the terrace, pointing directly at the Long Man of Wilmington, etched in chalk halfway up Windover Hill, marching down on them with his two staves and his war helmet like a giant warrior hero of old.
Excerpted from The Tide of War by Seth Hunter. Copyright © 2009 Seth Hunter. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Tide of War is the second book of a series dealing with a British Naval Officer during the War of the First Coalition that followed the French Revolution. It opens with Nathan Peake being made Post and receiving command of the Unicorn, a frigate with a troubled history of mutiny. The author shows a deft hand with the history of the period and the working of the wooden warships that were the major players in these wars. His characters are well drawn and have believable motives. He touches base with most of the social forces that drove events during the period and casts his scenes from Paris to New Orleans. Having been a long time reader of authors from Marryat to O'Brian I enjoyed this book a great deal. I do not think based on this one volume that it quite reaches the Aubrey and Maturin level. However, I do not really expect anyone to hit that mark again. All in all it was a roaring good read and an excellent addition to the Age of Sail category.
An exciting read with history to boot.