Book 4. A compelling new historical naval adventure from a master of maritime storytelling. 1796: Nathan Peake, captain of the frigate Unicorn is sent with a small squadron into the Adriatic to help bring Venice into an Italian alliance with Britain against the French. He establishes a British naval presence, harrying the French corsairs that swarm out of Ancona in Italy and confronts the politics of "intrigue, poison and the stiletto" in Venice, but learns that Bonaparte is negotiating a peace deal with the Austrians—Britain's only remaining ally. Worse, the Spanish are about to ally with the French. Nathan returns to the Unicorn and rejoins Nelson for the decisive Battle of St. Vincent against the entire Spanish fleet.
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The Winds of Folly
A Nathan Peake Novel
By Seth Hunter
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Seth Hunter
All rights reserved.
The Captain of the Unicorn
* * *
Captain Nathaniel Peake of His Britannic Majesty's Navy was not normally given to the sin of Avarice. Lust had been a problem at times and Gluttony was not unknown to him, but Avarice, he would have thought, stood low on his list of moral propensities; so he was a little surprised to find he had been lounging against the stern rail of the frigate Unicorn for a not inconsiderable time gazing with some complacency at the four vessels sailing in her wake whilst calculating how much wealth they represented and how much of it would accrue to him personally.
Three of the vessels were blockade runners, caught sneaking along the Ligurian coast with munitions and supplies for the French Army currently fighting the Austrians in the mountains. The fourth was a French privateer of eight guns, the Bonne Aventure, which the Unicorn had taken off Cap Ferrat, and which was by far the most valuable of her prizes, not least because of the small velvet bag containing ten pieces of jewellery which had been discovered in the safe in her Captain's cabin and which now belonged to Nathan. Or more accurately, to His Britannic Majesty. Nathan, however, was entitled to two-eighths of their value, this being the share assigned to him in their wisdom by their Lordships of the Admiralty as an incitement to initiative, and he was more than content with this arrangement. If a fraction of the profit found its way into King George's purse, which was doubtful, Nathan wished him joy of it: the unhappy monarch had thirteen children to support and the tradesmen to pay, not to speak of the doctors who were treating him for his current mental disorder.
The Captain's gaze shifted from the little flotilla to the mountainous coastline a mile or so off his larboard bow. He had been cruising up and down it from Cap d'Antibes to Genoa for half a year now and could have drawn a detailed chart from memory with the depths of every cove and inlet, the projection of every headland, and the strength and position of every fort and battery. Liguria. An enchanted province of mountain and forest, olive and citrus groves, vineyards, deep valleys and mountain streams, remote monasteries and ancient hill towns. In the light of the afternoon sun it looked entirely at peace: a mossy haze veiling the mountains, the sea lapping gently at its rocky shores, a mild northerly breeze bringing the fragrant smell of pines from the lower slopes. But it was a fragile, illusory peace, for although the Republic of Genoa maintained an official policy of neutrality, the French had insinuated their garrisons into every port, and a squadron of English frigates patrolled the coast, seizing any vessel suspected of trading with the enemy.
And in the distant mountains, a young Corsican General called Napoleon Bonaparte led the French Army to victory after victory against the demoralised troops of the Austrian Emperor, Britain's last remaining ally of note in a war that had divided Europe for the past seven years and spread across the seas to the Americas and the Caribbean. A war that would, if it continued to go badly, bring Britain to her knees.
Nathan was aware that Italy was regarded as a sideshow, Bonaparte's sortie across the Alps a mere diversion to the main battle on the Rhine. But the General's spectacular success had brought matters to a head. If the Austrians lost their Italian provinces it was odds on that they would throw in the towel before the enemy advanced to the gates of Vienna, and it seemed unlikely that Britain would fight on alone, expending more blood and treasure in a futile bid to restore the Bourbons to the throne of France.
Nathan had not met an Englishman yet who thought the Bourbons worth a fart, much less worth dying for. As for the wider motives that Edmund Burke and his friends propagated in press and Parliament – that one must fight the spread of Revolution and its evil progeny, Terror – well, Nathan had witnessed the Terror in Paris during the dark days of Robespierre, and he would have been the first to agree that it must be opposed, but the Terror was over, the Revolution had lost its sting. Robespierre had been overthrown, the guillotine dismantled and put into store – even if Billy Pitt still used it to scare people into paying their taxes. France had new rulers now and they were too busy feathering their own nests to burden themselves with principles or ideals, much less export them to London.
Nathan had read Bonaparte's proclamation to his troops before he crossed the Alps and it smacked more of piracy than idealism.
'Soldiers! You are hungry and naked; the government owes you much but can give you nothing. The patience and courage which you have displayed among these mountains are admirable, but they bring you no glory – not a glimmer falls upon you. I will lead you into the most fertile plains on Earth. Rich provinces, opulent towns, all shall be at your disposal; there you will find honour, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be lacking in courage or endurance?'
That was the stuff to give the troops. No wonder they loved him. You could only have so much Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; you could never have too much Loot. And that was what they fought for, those boys up in the mountains: like every army that had marched into Italy since the Renaissance.
Nathan's eyes moved to his own plunder, keeping station at the rear, and experienced a slight twinge of conscience. But only slight: not enough to take the edge off his appetite for more. He began to scale the hills of Avarice again, pushing his moneybags before him. Two barques and a snow – worth at least £30,000 with their cargoes, he would have thought – and it was almost certain the Bonne Aventure would be bought into the service: the fleet was short of lean, fast sloops that could go close inshore. Say another £10,000 to make it an easy sum. That would bring in £5,000 for Commodore Nelson, his flag officer, who was always going on about how poor he was as the son of a Norfolk clergyman; £5,000 to be shared between the Unicorn's three lieutenants, her sailing master and surgeon; £5,000 for the principal warrant officers, the Captain of Marines – and the flag officer's secretary, God damn it! Though why this gentleman should be included in a division of the spoils provoked the first symptoms in the Unicorn's Captain of that condition to which the wealthy are often prone when obliged to share their fortune with the undeserving poor.
Another £5,000 for the midshipmen, the warrant officers' mates and the Marine sergeant; £10,000 for the crew – that was near enough £50 per man – almost five times the annual pay for a great many of them.
And £10,000 for the Captain.
And that was without the jewellery – the gewgaws, as he believed they were known in thieves' cant, which was uncomfortably appropriate in the circumstances. Nathan reviewed the individual gems in his mind's eye. A blue sapphire set in garnets, a pair of emerald earrings, a ruby set in filigree, and six diamonds mounted in silver. He had no idea what they were worth but he reckoned it could easily add another few thousand to the tally. He might even buy one of the diamonds himself as a gift for his future bride.
Nathan's thoughts veered in a more romantic direction, though one that was not without its own pitfalls and problems.
Sara Peake. The name did not seem very real, somehow; it did not seem to fit. Sara Marie Peake. No better. Perhaps because she had previously been Sara Marie de la Tour d'Auvergne, Countess of Turenne. That had a ring to it, all right. Even her maiden name – Sara Seton – had a ring to it. But Sara Peake? Unlikely.
They had not actually spoken of marriage, but there was an 'understanding' between them. At least he thought there was. Or there had been when he had put her aboard the Gibraltar packet two months ago. Perhaps, on the long voyage to England, she had thought better of it. If he could win a knighthood it might improve matters a little. Lady Sara Peake. Yes. He liked the sound of that. It was not quite up to the level of Sara de la Tour d'Auvergne, but it was a definite improvement. Captain Sir Nathaniel Peake did not sound too bad, either.
He turned back from the rail and assumed an air of gravitas in keeping with his position as Captain of a thirty-two-gun frigate: the lord of all he surveyed. Six months in the Mediterranean sunshine had so darkened his complexion he had grown quite saturnine, especially when he frowned as he did now, drawing himself up to his full height, which was a little over six feet, clapping his hands behind his back and casting an eagle eye over his domain.
Not that anyone took a blind bit of notice, of course, much less quaked in their boots, but this, too, might be taken as cause for satisfaction, in that every man aboard knew his place and function, no one had been flogged for as long as he could remember, and the smooth running of the ship was something her Captain could more or less take for granted.
It had not always been the case. Nathan had taken command of the Unicorn in the aftermath of mutiny and murder, when a score or so of her people had risen up against their officers and made off in the ship's cutter, taking their previous Captain as hostage. His body had later been washed up on the shores of Louisiana with its throat cut, and the mutineers had taken to a life of piracy on the Spanish Main while the Unicorn had endured hurricane and near-shipwreck in a futile pursuit.
Nathan had come aboard in the Havana to find both ship and crew in a sorry state. The first lieutenant was a martinet and a moron, the junior officers morose and uneasy, the people whipped into a dogged and surly subservience. But after a shaky start, he had presided over a dramatic improvement. The Unicorn had fought and won two encounters with larger frigates, and though both her opponents had run upon the rocks and foundered, depriving him of a considerable fortune in the way of prize money, the victories had done much to bond officers and crew into a fighting unit. By a strange series of events, Nathan had secured the freedom of a number of African slaves in Louisiana and many of them had volunteered for service on the Unicorn where they had proved ideal recruits, particularly in the working of the guns. The fact that they could not under any circumstance be described as loyal subjects of King George was of no account. Not that many of the crew were.
Once, going through the ship's books with the purser, Nathan had been startled to discover that ninety-six of the hands, almost half the total, were listed as foreign-born, including twelve Frenchmen. He hoped the latter were Royalists, but he did not count on it. The hands comprised Scandinavians, Latvians and Lithuanians, Italians, Americans, the Africans – and a pair of Lascars who had been found drifting in an open boat off the west coast of Ireland and had yet to satisfactorily explain their presence there. And then there were the Irish, of course – the Catholic Irish – who made up almost a third of the remainder and were at best reluctant subjects of King George, at worst out-and-out rebels, at least in their Papist hearts.
As for the native English, most of them were the scourings of the jailhouse or the waterfront, forcibly brought in by the press, or fleeing from a worse fate than the King's Navy.
Nathan had decided he was more pleased than not by this multiplicity of nationalities and races, as if their very variety gave them some common cause, like Crusaders. Though God only knew what it was. The restoration of the Bourbons to the throne of France hardly counted as a crusade. The prize money probably helped.
The officers, of course, were a different matter, and here Nathan had more cause for satisfaction. Death had removed the main impediments to his contentment, the first lieutenant having been struck by a musket ball in the Caribbean, and the sailing master, a notorious Jeremiah, having lived up to his own expectations and succumbed to a perforated ulcer on the voyage home. Their replacements, Mr Duncan and Mr Perry, were their superiors in every way. They could be relied upon to manage the crew and to sail the ship in whatever direction was required without troubling their Captain for an opinion on either subject. And should he feel compelled to offer one, or even to issue an order, he could always turn for advice to his particular friend, Lieutenant Tully, presently commanding the Bonne Aventure. The third lieutenant, Mr Holroyd, was an exemplary officer in every way – if you discounted the loss of an ear, sliced off by a cutlass in the Caribbean – and the midshipmen and other young gentlemen were coming along nicely.
In fact, Nathan had very little to do most of the time besides sink into long bouts of the introspection to which he was prone, though he did his best to divert himself with music and prose, even the occasional line of verse. He practised upon the flute, wrote long letters home and shorter despatches to his seniors, swam around the ship to keep himself fit, and played chess with whoever of his officers could be relied upon to give him a respectable game and not let him win too easily – which usually came down to the surgeon McLeish and the youngest but most assured of the midshipmen, Mr Lamb.
He shifted his position slightly so he had a better view of the waist where a number of the hands had appeared with buckets and swabs. He wondered what new occupation the first lieutenant had found to divert them, for the swabbing of the decks always occurred in the forenoon watch, and from Nathan's present vantage they still looked as spotless as even Lieutenant Duncan might desire. But it soon became apparent that this was a different kind of ritual. The buckets contained a quantity of fat derived from the boiled meats which coagulated in the galley coppers – commonly known as 'slush' – and the hands were applying it to the wheels of the gun trucks to make them slide more easily and make less of a fiendish scream when they were about it.
Nathan could only approve such zeal, though he wondered idly what kind of bargain had been struck with the ship's cook, for the slush was one of the perks of this satrap and he usually had some deal going with the purser to sell it off as tallow or even for human consumption as 'dripping'. But then he noted that the operation was being conducted under the supervision of George Banjo, who was the acknowledged leader of the African contingent among the ship's company, and whose impressive powers of persuasion were reinforced by his gigantic bulk. Banjo – Nathan had no idea if this was his real name – had lately been rated gunner's mate, for his love of the 18-pounders that constituted the Unicorn's main armament was only matched by his skill in handling them, and he had since embarked on a series of measures designed to improve their already creditable performance. Clearly the ship's cook had been compelled to cooperate in this ambition.
Nathan had lately been informed by Tully that Banjo's leadership of the Africans had now been extended to include the entire lower deck, and that even the boatswain's mates, the official policing agency of those realms, stood in awe of him. As there was no reason to doubt his loyalty to Nathan personally and his manner was generally benevolent, Nathan had no serious argument with this, though he did wonder sometimes if his own position was more nominal than actual and whether the real powers aboard the ship more properly belonged to the triumvirate of gunner's mate, first lieutenant and sailing master.
None of which diminished Nathan's current sense of complacency for he had much to be grateful for, quite apart from the promise of £10,000 in prize money – £12,000, possibly, with the gewgaws thrown in. Though he was approaching his twenty-eighth birthday, he remained in excellent health, he was in possession of a good head of hair and most of his teeth – and the sounding of the ship's bell alerted him to the fact that it was nearly time for his dinner.
Excerpted from The Winds of Folly by Seth Hunter. Copyright © 2012 Seth Hunter. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Another great installment in this seriies