Patrolling the south coast of England in 1793 for smugglers, Commander Nathan Peake finds himself unhappy with his commission and desperate for some action. After revolutionary Frenchmen kill their own king and declare war on England, he gets his opportunity. Peake is entrusted with a vital mission to wreck the French economy by smuggling millions of French banknotes across the English Channel and into the heart of Paris. As he reluctantly embarks on the task of undermining the Revolution, opposition to the terror mounts, and he is soon forced to leave Paris and find the British squadrons in the storm-tossed Atlantic. Perfect for fans of nautical fiction, this humorous and well-researched tale portrays an upper-class, highly educated officer who values both action and reflection.
About the Author
Seth Hunter, a pseudonym, is a writer and director of historical dramas.
Read an Excerpt
The Time of Terror
By Seth Hunter
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Seth Hunter
All rights reserved.
the Black Lugger
A black night and cold, even for the first month of the year with a chill wind whipping across the Channel from France. A night to be indoors by a good fire with a mug of hot punch, not gadding about off the Sussex Downs in support of the Revenue service fighting a futile war against the smugglers. Nathaniel Peake, master and commander of the brig sloop Nereus, bent his bum against the nearest of her sixteen guns with his coat collar turned up and his chin thrust deep into his muffler and cast an anxious eye at the familiar hump of Seaford Head off the larboard bow. Even on such a dirty night, with a scrap of a moon dodging in and out of ragged clouds, he could make out the line of surf at its foot. He had the sailor's healthy respect for a lee shore and in his mind's eye he saw the rocks where in times past he had clambered with his shrimp net when the tide was out.
"We must hug the coast and take them by surprise," he had been instructed by the Revenue Collector, Mr. Swales, who had joined them at Shoreham: a stout burlesque of the breed with an opinion of his own competence that Nathan was inclined from sheer prejudice to doubt.
It was a coast Nathan knew well. Beyond the headland was Cuckmere Haven where he had first set foot in salt water, bawling not in fear — as he was later told — but for his nanny to loose her hold upon him so that he might venture farther. Here, too, he had sailed his first boat and set a course for America till a slack wind and a stern tutor recalled him to his responsibilities. And one summer's night when the household thought him safe in bed he had crouched at the top of the cliff and watched the smugglers landing contraband: the fleet of small boats in the haven and the long line of ponies and tub-men straggling along the Cuckmere with their illicit booty.
They'd be there tonight if the information laid before the Collector was correct; some of the same men in all probability for it was only ten years since Nathan's last sighting of them. He imagined sweeping them with grape or shot and shook his head at the absurdity of the notion. Yet not so impossible before the night was out.
He crossed to the weather side of the little space he liked to think of as his quarterdeck — though the Nereus was flush-decked like all the vessels of her class — and gazed across the sea towards the black bank of cloud that masked the proper enemy to the south. France and England had been at war for much of the century and would be again before it was out, if you could believe what you read in the newspapers. Yet there had been peace for ten years, the whole time Nathan had been in the Navy, with precious few enemies to fight save some unfortunate aborigines in the South Seas and importunate pirates in the Caribbean ... and of course the smugglers.
There was a flash of lightning from the clear sky to the east and a thin crack that was a far cry from thunder. A moment's pause and then a veritable barrage. Nathan came off the rail and arched his brow at Mr. Collector Swales as if to enquire if this was all part of his plan, knowing full well that it was not. The gentleman relieved himself of an oath and stamped his feet upon the deck, possibly under the impression he was travelling post and could thereby induce a faster turn of speed. Nathan met the questioning eye of his first lieutenant, Mr. Jordan, and instructed him to beat to quarters though he was not impatient for battle with men with whom he was at least half in sympathy and had probably known since childhood, smuggling being a way of life on the Sussex coast. To his certain knowledge many of his own father's labourers were employed in the trade, earning more in a few hours carrying tubs of contraband brandy and tobacco than they could earn in a week on the farm.
Nathan made his way forward through the rush of men and took up a new mooring at the foremast shrouds so that he might see what was afoot the moment they cleared Hope Point.
Not far now and closing fast. Their consort, the little Customs cutter Badger, was already turning, almost jibing as she rounded the point. Then she veered abruptly to windward so that she lay broadside to the shore with her own guns run out: four little 4-pounders that would scarce scare a bum-boat but might play the very devil on that open stretch of shore. Nathan could see it clear in his mind's eye: the steep bank of shingle and the wide flat marshland beyond and the cliffs of the Seven Sisters sweeping down to Beachy Head ...
Then they were round the point, the moon suddenly clear of the scudding clouds and the white cliffs making a perfect reflector for the spectacle on shore. As great a shambles as Nathan could have predicted though it surprised him that the mistake was so elementary.
The dragoons had come down on the wrong side of the river.
Either that or the lookout — the spots-man — had signalled the incoming boats to switch the landing. Whatever the cause, the troopers were stranded on the west bank of the Cuckmere and the smugglers were on the east. Even in the dark Nathan could see them fleeing along the shore towards the gentle slope of Haven Brow: above a hundred of them and half as many ponies with the dragoons riding their horses into the river and blazing away with their carbines with not a hope in hell of hitting anything. And a fleet of small boats fleeing along the foot of the cliffs towards Beachy Head ...
And there, a mile or so farther to the east but silhouetted against the white backdrop of the Sisters, was the black lugger ...
"The Fortune," cried the Collector, fairly dancing in his agitation and pointing. "There is our prize, sir."
The Fortune had been the main topic of his discourse since leaving Shoreham: a big, fast lugger with ten 6-pounders and a crew of more than a hundred which made her more than a match for any of the Revenue cutters on the station and was the main reason for a naval presence. She had been fitted out in Newhaven ostensibly as a privateer during the American War but was now known to be wholly engaged in smuggling (as in all probability she was then): her normal practice being to run the contraband over from one of the French Channel ports and transfer it to the tub-boats off the Sussex coast.
In which occupation she had clearly been disturbed and was now fleeing out to sea with all the sail she could carry — and the little Customs cutter snapping at her heels. No chance of catching her of course, much less of engaging her as an equal, but if the lugger lost a single spar it would be enough for the Nereus to come up and make an end of it. Unhappily, her skipper was of the same opinion and as the Badger closed on him he came even farther into the wind and fired a rippling broadside on the roll with a greater approximation to thunder than anything Nathan had heard thus far.
He had been staring straight at her and was momentarily blinded by the sudden eruption but when he could see again it was to observe the Badger taken aback with her topmast down and a shamble of headsails and rigging on her foredeck. Nathan had already brought the brig as close to the wind as she could sail but he had to fall off to avoid a collision and he came up on the cutter's lee and called out did she need assistance. The skipper replied with a string of oaths indicating that Nathan would be better occupied with catching his assailant but a glance in the lugger's direction suggested the contrary. Nathan had entertained some faint hope of crossing her stern and raking her from a distance but it was clear now that he would be lucky to come within a mile of her and thereafter their courses would be steadily diverging.
He heard the Revenue man asking why they did not give chase and left it to the junior midshipman to explain in his superior way that the lugger, being rigged fore and aft could sail at least a point closer to the wind, do you see? While the brig, being square-rigged would have to beat to windward and tack. A futile course of action unless the wind changed or the lugger was taken aback. Nathan would be better employed rounding up the tub-boats still creeping along the foot of the cliffs in the hope that no one had noticed them. Yet he despised the notion of hauling in a few poor fishermen while the real culprit sailed safely back to France. Better to tack in the lugger's wake, vain though it was, and hope the Revenue officer would not propose an alternative strategy until it was too late.
He was about to give the order when he caught the eye of one of his junior officers. It was something of a speculative look, hedged with caution, and it caused Nathan to delay the manoeuvre for a moment or two while he considered what it might mean.
Martin Tully was a Guernsey man who had joined the Nereus a month or two before Nathan. In his briefing the first lieutenant had explained that Tully, like every second man in the Channel Isles, was a former smuggler: the mate of a chasse marée taken off the Isle of Wight and her crew given the option of volunteering for the King's Navy or facing the full fury of the law. He had been rated able seaman but swiftly raised to master's mate by the previous commander of the Nereus. Nathan had formed no more than a sketchy assessment of Tully's abilities but he found him agreeable enough and certainly competent, quietly spoken with the manners of a gentleman and none of the airs. He seemed wary of putting himself forward lest he be laid aback. Hardly surprising in view of his previous career as a smuggler. As to his social background, Nathan had overheard the two midshipmen whispering that he was the by-blow of a Guernsey seigneur, which might have been a myth he had perpetrated to win their respect for they were both the sons of gentlemen, of course, and deplorable snobs who would honour the bastard of a noble far more than the legitimate spawn of a tradesman or less. Yet he did not seem given to invention and there was something in his face and bearing that would have inclined them to respect, Nathan thought, whatever his breeding. Nathan had resolved to know him better but the opportunity had slid by — like so much else on his present commission. Now he joined Tully at the rail and after returning his salutation and contemplating the horizon for a minute or two he begged him for his opinion of the distant chase.
"Well, sir," said he, "for the moment I believe he is content to put as much space between us as is possible in as short a time — and so he will sail as close to the wind as he may."
"And then?" Nathan prompted.
"And then I believe he will make for the Somme."
"The Somme?" Nathan knew it from the charts of course, though he had never been there: a wide estuary about halfway between Dieppe and Boulogne. But why the Somme? Dieppe, surely, was far more likely.
Tully seemed to be considering the question, though it was hard to tell. His face lacked expression. There might be more knowledge locked in there than he deemed prudent to release.
"She is the Fortune, I believe, of Newhaven?" he ventured.
Tully nodded. "Her captain is a man called Williams — or was when I last heard of him which were no more than a few months since. A Sussex man by birth and a privateer in the past, but he has a woman in St. Valéry and spends more time there than in any English port though his crew are mostly English and American."
St. Valéry. Again Nathan consulted his memory of the charts and located it on the south bank of the Somme very close to the mouth. A smaller port than Dieppe or Le Havre, used mainly by fishing boats.
"He will set his course for there, I think," said Tully, "as soon as he believes we have abandoned the chase."
He spoke without any sense of conceit or consequence but in such a manner that Nathan was inclined to believe he knew exactly what he was about. The question was whether he wished to aid or hinder the chase.
Nathan joined the first lieutenant who had been following their conversation from the weather rail, his face marked with suspicion or disapproval or both.
"Mr. Jordan, I believe we will set a course for the Somme," Nathan informed him with a cheerfulness that masked his own doubts, "and see what Fortune it may bring us."CHAPTER 2
The French coast lay off the starboard bow under the same black cloud as before but Fortune was playing hide and seek. Twice the Nereus had sighted her — or something suspiciously like her — but each time she had vanished into the witches' brew of mist and rain to the west. Now they were halfway through the forenoon, hove-to off the French coast almost in the mouth of the Somme. A filthy morning battered with rainsqualls, sea and sky poured into the same grim pot and stirred about till there was no telling them apart.
The wind had dropped considerably through the night but it still blew from the southwest with sufficient force to hold the Nereus against the flood with her yards braced by. And as long as the wind stayed there Nathan was confident he could come down on his quarry if she tried to slip past him into the Somme.
If the Somme was where she was headed.
The longer the day advanced the more he began to doubt. And it was a doubt shared by the majority of his officers if he did not mistake the looks passed between them. They did not trust him. He was new to command and still on trial so far as they were concerned. Their natural loyalty was to Jordan, the first lieutenant who had been passed over for promotion. And they had even less trust in a former smuggler who might be sending them on a wild goose chase to save an old acquaintance from the gallows.
Nathan joined Tully at the rail, staring into the murk to the west.
"So what manner of man is this Williams," he inquired, "the skipper of the Fortune?"
Tully made a face. "I only met him once," he said, "though I knew him by repute. A vain man, a braggart, and greedy. He's a good enough seaman, I believe, but I did not like him."
So was this why he was ready to betray him? Or was it a more noble cause: the oath he had taken to serve the King, perhaps? There was no way of asking such a question, not for Nathan at least, and besides, he was committed now. And his officers would judge him for it. Happily, Collector Swales had gone below to sleep off the effects of a large hip flask that had comforted him through the hours of darkness while Nathan spent the night on deck, worrying.
He wondered what made him so concerned: to lose sleep over a smuggler? Nothing to do with honour, for where was the honour in such a mission? It might earn a commendation from his superiors but would do little for his self-esteem. It was more a matter of his own competence. Of judging himself fit for command.
Doubts of this nature had begun to assail him from the moment he had stepped aboard the Nereus; perhaps earlier, during the long months ashore on half pay. He had been ten years in the Navy and it seemed a little late to be considering that he had chosen the wrong career and yet he was increasingly of the opinion that this was the case.
He had been happy enough for the first few years — as a midshipman on the West Indies station and then a lieutenant on a survey vessel in the South Seas — but he had been fortunate to escape many of the restrictions and the formalities that were the norm in the King's service. When the Hermes was paid off in '91 he had spent almost eighteen months ashore, mostly in London, and discovered there were more ways of spending one's life than on the deck of a ship of war and companions for whom the Navy was not the be all and end all of life.
Then he had been offered the command of the Nereus. It was a surprise appointment and he suspected his father's influence in the matter. Nathan's father, Sir Michael Peake, had fought in three wars against the French and retired with the rank of rear admiral but he still had friends in high places and was always willing to use them to his son's advantage. Nathan had briefly considered turning the offer down — effectively ending his career — but it would have broken his father's heart. Besides, what else could he do? He painted a little. He wrote verse. He was interested in astronomy. He was learning to play the flute. The accomplishments of the average gentleman of leisure with aspirations to learning. He was afraid that if he permitted himself the time to focus on any one of these endeavours he might discover himself to be totally without talent.
Excerpted from The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter. Copyright © 2008 Seth Hunter. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful characters and novel with historical significance.
Great read, some epub formatting errors but well worth reading. The hero, a young Lieutenant in the Royal navy, masquerades as an American blockade runner while helping hammer the French economy. (Did you know the Brits shipped counterfeit currency into France to destroy the French economy?) Lots of details about the Terror and the English response. The hero spends more of his time in France than he does at sea so this might not be the perfect book if you're expecting Hornblower or Lewrie. The hero tries to resolve the conflicts between his Navy career, his Tory retired admiral father and his French-American radical Whig mother. Unfortunately, things end badly. Vivid descriptions of the mother's radical Whig salon in London (complete with a cameo of Talleyrand being Talleyrand) and life in Paris during the Terror. History seems to be accurate. Go for it! I look forward to reading the next book (Tide of War) as soon as it's available in epub. (McBooks has committed to producing epubs of their books but the conversion seems to be moving slow.)
Kept me intrigued and turning the page
I enjoyed this book very much .