Plymouth, July 1801: Richard Bolitho's small squadron, still repairing the scars of battle earned in heavy action at Copenhagen, has been months away from the sea. After eight years of war with France, Britain must make a gesture that will show strength and determination—and one which will dramatically weaken the French cause. Rear-Admiral Bolitho must follow his flag's tradition of victory, even though—for the first time in his life—he is torn between the demands of public duty and personal need.
About the Author
Alexander Kent, pen name of Douglas Edward Reeman, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
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A Tradition of Victory
The Bolitho Novels: 14
By Alexander Kent
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1981 Highseas Authors Ltd
All rights reserved.
A TOUCH OF L]AND
EVEN FOR the West Country of England the summer of 1801 was rare with its cloudless blue skies and generous sunlight. In Plymouth, on this bustling July forenoon, the glare was so bright that the ships which seemed to cover the water from the Hamoaze to the Sound itself danced and shimmered to lessen the grimness of their gun-decks and the scars of those which had endured the fury of battle.
A smart gig pulled purposefully beneath the stern of a tall three-decker and skilfully avoided a cumbersome lighter loaded almost to the gills with great casks and barrels of water. The gig's pale oars rose and fell together, and her crew in their checkered shirts and tarred hats were a credit to her ship and coxswain. The latter was gauging the comings and goings of other harbour craft, but his mind was firmly on the gig's passenger, Captain Thomas Herrick, whom he had just carried from the jetty.
Herrick was well aware of his coxswain's apprehension, just as he could sense the tension from the way his gig's crew carefully avoided his eye as they feathered their blades and made the boat scud across the water like a bright beetle.
It had been a long, tiresome journey from Kent, Herrick's home, and as the distance from Plymouth had fallen away he had started to fret over what he would discover.
His ship, the seventy-four-gun Benbow, had arrived in Plymouth barely a month back. It was incredible to believe that it was less than three months since the bloody fight itself, the one which was now called the Battle of Copenhagen. The small Inshore Squadron, of which Benbow was the flagship, had fought with distinction. Everyone had said so, and the Gazette had hinted that but for their efforts "things" might have gone very differently.
Herrick shifted on his thwart and frowned. He did not notice the stroke oarsman flinch under his stare, nor was he conscious of seeing him at all. Herrick was forty-four years old, and had made the hard and treacherous climb to his present appointment with neither influence nor patronage. He had heard it all before, and despised those who spoke of a sea-fight as if it were a kind of umpired contest.
Those sort of folk never saw the carnage, the broken bodies and minds which went with each encounter. The tangle of cordage and splintered timbers and spars which had to be put to rights without so much as a by-your-leave so that the ruin could be restored into a fighting ship and sent where she could be best used.
He glanced around the busy anchorage. Ships taking on stores, others being refitted. His eye rested on a lithe frigate, mastless and riding high above her reflection, uncluttered by guns and men, as she swung to her warps from a slipway. Just launched. He saw the waving hats and arms, the bright flags curling along her empty gunports, her growing confidence like that of a newly dropped colt.
Herrick frowned again. After eight years of constant war with France and her allies they were still short of frigates. Where would this one go? Who would command her and find glory or ignominy?
Herrick turned and looked at the young lieutenant who had come out to collect him with the gig. He must have arrived during his seven precious days in Kent. He was so pale and young, so unsure of himself that Herrick could barely see him as a newly joined midshipman, let alone a lieutenant. But the war had taken so many that the whole fleet seemed to be manned by boys and old men.
It was useless to ask him anything. He was scared of his own shadow.
Herrick glanced up at his square-shouldered coxswain as he steered the boat beneath another tapering bowsprit and glaring figurehead.
This shivering boy posing as a lieutenant had met him at the jetty, doffed his hat and had stammered in one breath, "The first lieutenant's respects, sir, and the admiral is come aboard."
Thank God the first lieutenant had been there to greet him, Herrick thought grimly. But what was Rear-Admiral Bolitho, an officer he had served in many parts of the world, a man whom he loved more than any other, doing aboard Benbow now?
It was easy to see him in those last moments outside Copenhagen. The smoke, the terrible din of falling spars and the jarring crash of cannon fire, and always Bolitho had been there. Waving them on. Driving them, leading them with all the reckless determination only he could use. Except that Herrick, who carried the pride deep within him of being his greatest friend, knew the real man underneath. The doubts and the fears, the excitement at a challenge, the despair at the waste of life if wrongly cast away.
Their homecoming should have been different for him above all others. This time there was a woman waiting. A beautiful girl who could and would be a reprieve from all which Bolitho had held dear and had previously lost. Bolitho had been going to London, to the Admiralty, and then back again to his home in Cornwall, that big grey house in Falmouth.
The gig straightened up on the last leg of the journey, and Herrick held his breath as he saw his ship stand out from the other anchored vessels, her black and buff tumblehome shining in the sunlight as a personal welcome. Only a professional seaman, and above all her captain, would see beyond the fresh paint and pitch, the blacked-down rigging and neatly furled canvas. The Benbow's fat hull was almost hemmed in by lighters and moored platforms. The air vibrated with the din of hammers and saws, and even as he watched another great bundle of new cordage was being swayed aloft to the mizzen topmast, the one which had been shot away in battle. But Benbow was a new ship and had the strength of two older consorts. She had suffered badly, but was out of dock, and within months would be at sea again with her squadron. In spite of his usual caution, Herrick was pleased and proud with what they had done. Being Herrick, it never occurred to him that much of the success had been due to his own inspiration and his tireless efforts to get Benbow ready for sea.
His eyes rested on the mizzen-mast and the flag which flapped only occasionally from its truck. The flag of a Rear-Admiral of the Red, but to Herrick it meant so much more. At least he had been able to share it with his new wife, Dulcie. Herrick had been married such a short time, and yet as he had given his sister away in marriage to the beanpole Lieutenant George Gilchrist, just four days back in Maidstone, he had felt like a husband of long years standing. He smiled, his round, homely face losing its sternness as he thought about it. His own ability to offer advice on marriage!
The bowman stood up with his boathook at the ready.
Benbow had risen right above the gig as Herrick's mind had drifted away. Close alongside he could see the repaired timbers, the paint which now hid the blood from the scuppers. As if the ship and not her people had been bleeding to death.
The oars were tossed and Tuck, the coxswain, removed his hat. Their eyes met and Herrick gave a quick smile. "Thank you, Tuck. Smart turnout."
They understood each other.
Herrick looked up at the entry port and prepared himself for the thousandth time. Once he had never believed he would ever hold his rank of lieutenant. The step from wardroom to quarterdeck, and now to being the flag-captain to one of the finest sea-officers alive, was even harder to accept.
Like the new house in Kent. Not a cottage, but a real house, with a full admiral living nearby and several rich merchants too. Dulcie had assured him, "Nothing is too good for you, dear Thomas. You've worked for it, you deserve far more."
Herrick sighed. Most of the money had been hers anyway. How had he ever managed to be so lucky, to find his Dulcie?
A cloud of pipeclay floated above the stolid faces and black shakoes as the muskets banged to the present, and, as the air cringed to the twitter of the boatswains' calls, Herrick removed his hat to the quarterdeck and to Wolfe, his towering first lieutenant, the most ungainly, but certainly one of the best seamen Herrick had ever met.
The din faded away, and Herrick looked at the side party with sadness. So many new faces to learn. But now he only saw the others who had died in the battle or were suffering the pain and humiliation of some naval hospital.
But Major Clinton of the marines was still here. And beyond his scarlet shoulder Herrick saw old Ben Grubb, the sailing-master. He was lucky to have so many seasoned hands to weld the recruits and pressed men into some kind of company.
"Well, Mr Wolfe, maybe you can tell me why the admiral's flag is aloft?"
He fell in step with the lieutenant with the two wings of bright ginger hair poking from beneath his hat like studding-sails. It was as if he had never been away. As if the ship had swallowed him up and the distant shore with its shimmering houses and embrazured batteries was of no importance.
Wolfe said in his flat, harsh voice, "The admiral came off shore yesterday afternoon, sir." He shot out a massive fist and pointed at some newly coiled halliards. "What's that lot? Bloody birds'-nests?" He swung away from the transfixed sailor and bellowed, "Mr Swale, take this idiot's name! He should be a damned weaver, not a seaman!"
Wolfe added, breathing hard, "Most of the new hands are like that. The sweepings of the assizes, with a sprinkling of trained ones." He tapped his big nose. "Got them off an Indiaman. They said they were free from service in a King's ship. They said they had the papers to prove it too."
Herrick gave a wry smile. "But their ship had sailed by the time you sorted things out, Mr Wolfe?"
Like his first lieutenant, Herrick had little sympathy with all the prime seamen who were exempt from naval service merely because they were employed by John Company or some harbour authority. England was at war. They needed seamen, not cripples and criminals. Every day it got harder. Herrick had heard that the press-gangs and undaunted recruiting parties were working many miles from the sea now.
He glanced up at the towering mainmast and its imposing spread of rigging and crossed yards. It was not difficult to remember the smoke and the punctured sails. The marines in the maintop yelling and cheering, firing swivels and muskets in a world gone mad.
They walked into the coolness of the poop, each ducking between the heavy deckhead beams.
Wolfe said, "The admiral came alone, sir." He hesitated, as if to test their relationship. "I thought he might bring his lady."
Herrick eyed him gravely. Wolfe was huge and violent and had seen service in everything from a slaver to a collier brig. He was not the kind of man to be patient with a laggard or allow time for personal weaknesses. But neither was he a gossip.
Herrick said simply, "I had hopes too. By God, if ever a man deserved or needed —"
The rest of his words were cut dead as the marine sentry outside the great cabin tapped his musket smartly on the deck and shouted, "Flag-Captain, sah!"
Wolfe grinned and turned aside. "Damned bullocks!"
The door was opened swiftly by little Ozzard, Bolitho's personal servant. He was an oddity. Although a good servant, he was said to have been an even better lawyer's clerk, but had fled to the Navy rather than face trial or, as some had unkindly hinted, a quick end on a hangman's halter.
The great cabin, divided by white screens from the dining and sleeping quarters, had been freshly painted, and the deck was once more covered by checkered canvas with no hint of the battle scars underneath.
Bolitho had been leaning out of a stern window, and as he turned to greet his friend, Herrick felt relieved that there was apparently no change. His gold-laced rear-admiral's coat lay carelessly across a chair, and he wore only his shirt and breeches. His black hair, with the one loose lock above his right eye, and his ready smile made him seem more like a lieutenant than a flag-officer.
They held hands momentarily, compressing the memories and the pictures into a few seconds.
Bolitho said, "Some hock, Ozzard." He pulled a chair for Herrick. "Sit you down, Thomas. It is good to see you."
His level grey eyes held on to his friend for a moment longer. Herrick was sturdier, his face a mite rounder, but that would be his new wife's care and cooking. There were a few touches of grey on his brown hair, like frost on a strong bush. But the clear blue eyes which could be so stubborn and so hurt were the same.
They touched their goblets and Bolitho added, "What is your state of readiness, Thomas?"
Herrick almost choked on his wine. Readiness? A month in port, and two of the squadron's strength lost forever during the battle! Even their smallest two-decker, the sixty-four-gun Odin, under the command of Captain Inch, had barely reached safety at the Nore, so deep by the bows had she been. Here in Plymouth, the Indomitable and the Nicator, seventy-fours like Benbow, were in the throes of repair.
He said carefully, "Nicator will be ready for sea soon, sir. The rest of the squadron should be reporting readiness by September, if we can bribe some help from these dockyard thieves!"
"And Styx, what of her?"
Even as he asked of the squadron's one surviving frigate, Bolitho saw the faraway look in his friend's eyes. They had lost their other frigate and a sloop-of-war. Wiped away, like footprints on a beach at high water.
Herrick allowed Ozzard to refill the goblet before answering. "Styx is working night and day, sir. Captain Neale seems able to inspire miracles from his people." He added apologetically, "I have only just returned from Kent, sir, but I shall be able to give you a full report by the end of the day."
Bolitho had risen to his feet, as if the chair could no longer contain his restlessness.
"Kent?" He smiled. "Forgive me, Thomas. I forgot. I am too full of my own problems to ask about your visit. How did the wedding go?"
As Herrick related the events which culminated in the marriage of his sister to his one-time first lieutenant, Bolitho found his mind moving away again.
When he had returned to Falmouth after the battle at Copenhagen he had been happier, more content than he could believe possible. To have survived had been one thing. To arrive at the Bolitho home with his nephew, Adam Pascoe, and his coxswain and friend, John Allday, had been crowned by the girl who had been waiting there for him. Belinda; he still found it hard to speak her name without fear that it was another dream, a ruse to taunt him back to hard reality.
The squadron, the battle, everything had seemed to fade as they had explored the old house like strangers. Made plans together. Had vowed not to waste a single minute while Bolitho was released from duty.
There was even a rumour of peace in the air. After all the years of war, blockade and violent death, it was said that secret negotiations were being made in London and Paris to stop the fighting, to gain a respite without loss of honour to either side. Even that had seemed possible in Bolitho's new dreamlike world.
But within two weeks a courier had come from London with orders for Bolitho to report to the Admiralty to visit his old superior and mentor, Admiral Sir George Beauchamp, who had given him command of the Baltic Inshore Squadron in the first place.
Even then Bolitho had seen the courier's dramatic despatch as nothing more than a necessary interruption.
Belinda had walked with him to the carriage, her eyes laughing, her body warm against his as she had told him of her plans, what she would do to prepare for their marriage while he was in London. She would be staying at the squire's house until they were finally married, for there were always loose tongues in a seaport like Falmouth, and Bolitho wanted nothing to spoil it. He disliked Lewis Roxby, the squire, intensely, and could not imagine what his sister Nancy had seen in him when she had married him. But he could be relied on to keep her entertained and occupied with his horses and his spreading empire of farms and villages.
Behind his back, Roxby's servants called him the King of Cornwall.
The shock had really hit Bolitho when he had been ushered into Admiral Beauchamp's chambers. He had always been a small, frail man, seemingly weighed down as much by his epaulettes and gold lace as the tremendous responsibility he held and the interest he retained wherever a British man-of-war sailed on the King's service. Hunched at his littered table, Beauchamp had been unable to rise and greet him. In his sixties, he had looked a hundred years old, and only his eyes had held their fire and alertness.
"I will not waste time, Bolitho. You have little to squander, I daresay. I have none left at all."
He was dying with each hour and every tight breath, and Bolitho had been both moved and fascinated by the intensity of the little man's words, the enthusiasm which had always been his greatest quality.
Excerpted from A Tradition of Victory by Alexander Kent. Copyright © 1981 Highseas Authors Ltd. 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.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSelected Historical Fiction Published by McBooks Press,
1 A TOUCH OF LAND,
2 NO LOOKING BACK,
3 RETURN OF A VETERAN,
4 THE STUFF OF BATTLE,
6 READY FOR SEA,
7 THE SECRET,
8 THE CERES,
9 PRICE OF FREEDOM,
10 FOR THE ADMIRAL'S LADY,
11 SO LITTLE TIME,
12 THE FLAG COMMANDS,
13 NO FIGHTING SAILOR,
14 THE TOAST IS VICTORY!,
15 AN IMPUDENT GESTURE,
16 FLOTSAM OF A DREAM,
17 BLADE TO BLADE,
Douglas Reeman Modern Naval Library,
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