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TO GLORY WE STEER
(Bolitho – 7)
1. THE PHALAROPE
The New Year of 1782 was only three days old but already the weather had made a decided change for the worse. Steady drizzle, pushed by a freshening southerly wind, explored the narrow streets of Portsmouth Point and made the stout walls of the old fortifications gleam like polished metal. Moving threateningly above the huddled buildings the cloud was unbroken and the colour of lead, so that although it was all but midday the light was feeble and depressing.
Only the sea was really alive. Across the normally sheltered expanse of the Solent the surface quivered and broke with each eager gust, but in the distorted light the wave crests held a strange yellow hue in contrast with the dull grey hump of the Isle of Wight and the rain-shrouded Channel beyond.
Captain Richard Bolitho pushed open the door of the George Inn and stood for a few moments to allow the drowsy heat to enfold him like a blanket. Without a word he handed hiscloak to a servant and tucked his cocked hat beneath his.arm. Through a door to his right he could see a welcoming fire in the coffee room, where a noisy throng of naval officers, interspersed with a few bright scarlet uniforms of the military, were taking their case and keeping their worries and demands of duty beyond the low, rain-slashed windows.
In another room, grouped in contemplative silence around several small tables, other officers studied their playing cards and the faces of their opponents. Few even glanced up at Bolitho's entrance. In Portsmouth, and at the George Inn in particular, after years of war and unrest, only a man out of uniform might have warranted attention.
Bolitho sighed and took a quick glance at himself in a wall mirror. His blue coat and gold lace fitted his tall figure well, and against the white shirt and waistcoat his face looked unusually tanned. Even allowing for a slow voyage back from the West Indies, his body was still unprepared for an English winter, and he forced himself to stand a little longer to clear the aching cold from his limbs.
A servant coughed politely at his elbow. `Beg pardon, sir.
The admiral is waitin' on you in his room.' He made a small gesture towards the stairway.
'Thank you.' He waited until the man had hurried away to answer some noisy demand from the coffee room and then took a final glance at the mirror. It was neither vanity nor personal interest. It was more of a cold scrutiny which he might offer to a subordinate.
Bolitho was twenty-six years old, but his impassive features and the deep lines on either side of his mouth made him appear older, and for a brief instant he found himself wondering how the change had come about. Almost irritably he pushed the black hair away from his forehead, pausing only to allow one rebellious lock to stay in place above his right eye.
Neither was that action one of vanity. More perhaps one of embarrassment.
Barely an inch above his eye, and running deep into his hair-line, was a savage diagonal scar. He allowed his fingers to touch it momentarily, as a man will let his mind explore an old memory, and then with a final shrug he walked briskly up the stairs.
Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Langford was standing, feet well apart, directly in front of the highest log fire Bolitho had ever seen. His glittering uniform shone in the dancing flames, and his thick shadow seemed to reach out across the spacious room to greet Bolitho's quiet entrance.
For several seconds the two men stood looking at each other. The admiral, in his sixties, and running to bulkiness, his heavy face dominated by a large beaked nose above which his keen blue eyes shone like two polished stones, and the slim, tanned captain.
Then the admiral stirred into life and stepped away from the fire, his hand outstretched. Bolitho felt the heat from the fire released across the room, as if a furnace door had been flung open.
'I am glad to see you, Bolitho!' The admiral'ss booming voice filled the room, sweeping away the years and replacing the image of an overweight old man with that of Bolitho's first captain.
As if reading his thoughts the admiral added ruefully, 'Fourteen years, isn't it? My God, it doesn't seem possible!' He stood back and studied Bolitho critically like a plump bird. `You were a scraggy midshipman, twelve years old, if I remember correctly. Hardly an ounce of flesh on you. I only took you aboard because of your father.' He smiled. 'You still look as if a good meal would not come amiss!'
Bolitho waited patiently. Those fourteen years of service had taught him one thing at least. Senior officers had their own way of getting round to the reasons for their actions. And it usually took time.
The admiral moved ponderously to a table and poured two generous glasses of brandy. `With most of the world against us, Bolitho, brandy has become somewhat of a luxury.' He shrugged. `However, as I am more troubled by rheumatism than gout, I look upon it as a last remaining necessity.'
Bolitho sipped carefully and studied his superior over the rim of the glass. He had arrived back from the West Indies just three days earlier, as one year faded and gave way to the next. His ship, his beloved Sparrow, had been handed over to the dockyard for a well-earned refit, while her less fortunate -company were scattered through the ever-hungry fleet to replace the growing gaps left by death and mutilation. Most of the sloop's crew had been away from their homeland for six years, and with a little well-earned prize money they had been hoping to see their loved ones again, if only for a short while. It was not to be, but Bolitho knew that his feeling of resentment and pity would be as useless as a ship without sails.
The pale eyes fixed suddenly on Bolitho's face. 'I'm giving you the Phalarope, Bolitho.' He watched the brief shaft of emotion play across the young captain's features. `She's lying out at Spithead right now, rigging set up, yards crossed, a finer frigate never floated.'
Bolitho placed the glass slowly on the table to give his mind time to deal with the admiral's words. The Phalarope, a thirtytwo-gun frigate, and less than six years old. He had seen her through his glass as he had rounded the Spit Sand three days ago. She was certainly a beautiful ship, all that he could ever have hoped for. No, more than he could have dreamed of.
He pushed the Sparrow to the hack of his thoughts. It was part of yesterday, along with his own hopes of taking a rest at his home in Cornwall, and getting to know the firm feel of the countryside, of so many half-remembered things.
He said quietly, `You do me a great honour, sir.'
'Nonsense, you've more than earned it!' The admiral seemed strangely relieved. As if he had been rehearsing this little speech for some time. 'I've followed your career, Bolitho. You are a great credit to the Navy, and-the country.'
'I had an excellent teacher, sir.'
The admiral nodded soberly. `They were great days, eh? Great days.' He shook himself and poured another brandy. 'I have told you the good news. Now I will tell you the other part.' He watched Bolitho thoughtfully. `The Phalarope has been attached to the Channel Fleet, mostly on blockade duty outside Brest.'
Bolitho pricked up his ears. Being on blockade duty was no news at all. The hard-pressed fleet needed every frigate like gold in its constant efforts to keep the French ships bottled up in their Channel ports. Frigates were maids of all work. Powerful enough to trounce any other vessel but a ship of the line in open combat, and fast enough to out-manoeuvre the latter, they were in permanent demand. What caught his immediate attention was the way the admiral had stressed has been attached to the Channel Fleet. So there were new orders. Maybe south to help relieve the beleaguered garrison in Gibraltar.
The admiral continued harshly, `Most ships go rotten from without. Wind and sea are cruel masters, even to the best timbers.' He stared at the rain splattering across the windows. `Phalarope had received her rot from within!' He began to pace angrily, his shadow crossing and recrossing the room like a spectre. `There was almost a mutiny a month back, and then when her squadron was engaged in battle with some blockade runners she avoided action!' He halted and glared at Bolitho with something like shock. `Can you believe that? A King's ship, and she failed to engage!'
Bolitho bit his lip. Mutiny was always a threat. Men pressed from life ashore, a handful of troublemakers, even one stupid officer, could turn a well-drilled ship into a living hell. But it rarely occurred with other ships in company. Usually this sort of madness broke out in a ship becalmed under a relentess tropical sun, with fever and disease the main instigators. Or during a long voyage out of sight of land, when a ship seemed to shrink in size with each dragging day, as if to force the men at each others' throats.
Sir Henry Langford added sharply, `I've relieved her captain of his command, of course.'
Bolitho felt a strange warmth for this tired, irritable old man, whose flagship, a massive three-decker, was even now taking on stores. in the harbour and preparing to carry her master back to his squadron off the hostile French coast. He had said `of course'. Yet Bolitho knew that many admirals would have backed up their captains even knowing them to be both guilty and incompetent.
The admiral gave a small smile. `I am afraid your honour is double-edged! It is never easy to take over an unhappy ship, especially in time of war.' He pointed at a sealed envelope on his desk. Its seals glittered in the firelight like fresh blood.,your orders. They require you to take command forthwith and proceed to sea.' He weighed his words carefully. `You will seek out Sir Samuel Hood's squadron and place yourself under his orders.'
Bolitho felt dazed. Hood was: still in the West Indies whence he had just returned. He had a brief picture of the same thousands of miles of empty sea, in command of a strange ship, with a crew still seething in discontent.
`So you see, Bolitho, I am still a hard taskmaster!' The admiral shuddered as a squall hit the window. `I am afraid you are nearly one hundred men under strength. I had to remove many of the troublemakers, and replacements are hard to come by. Some I will have to hang, as soon as a court martial can be convened. You have barely enough men to work the ship under way, let alone in action.' He rubbed his chin, his eyes glittering. `I suggest you make sail at once and head for the West Country. I understand that the fishing fleets are mostly in port in Devon and Cornwall. The weather it seems is not to their liking.' His smile broadened. `I see no- objection to your visiting Falmouth, Bolitho. While your officers are ashore pressing some of these fishermen into the King's service, you might well find the time to call upon your father. You will give him my kind regards, I hope.'
Bolitho nodded. `Thank you, sir. I will do that.' All at once he wanted to get away. There was so much to attend to. Stores and cordage to be checked, food and provisions for the long voyage. Above all, there was the Phalarope, waiting for him, ready to judge or condemn him.
The admiral picked up the canvas envelope and weighed it in his hands. `I will not advise you, Bolitho. You are young, but have more than proved yourself. Just remember this. There are bad men and good aboard your ship. Be firm, but not too hard. Do not regard lack of knowledge as insubordination, like your predecessor.' There was a bite to his tone. `If you have difficulty in remembering all this, try and recall what you were like when you came to serve me as midshipman.' He was. no longer smiling. `You can give the ship back her rightful place by returning her pride. But if you fail, even I cannot help you.'
`I would not expect you to, sir.' Bolitho's eyes were hard grey, like the sea beyond the harbour.
`I know. That is why I held the command for you.' There was a murmur of voices beyond the door and Bolitho knew the audience was nearly over. The admiral added, `I have a nephew aboard the Phalarope, he is one of your young gentlemen. His name is Charles Farquhar, and he might yet make a good officer. But do him no favours for my sake, Bolitho.' He sighed and handed over the envelope. `The ship is ready to sail, so take advantage of this southerly wind.' He held Bolitho's hand and studied his face intently. `We may not meet again, Bolitho, for I fear my days are numbered.' He waved down the other man's protest. `I have a responsibility, and I have certain rewards for my duty. But youth I cannot have.'
Bolithod hitched up his sword and tucked his hat under his arm once more. `Then I will take my leave, sir.' There was nothing more he could say.
Almost blindly he walked through the door and past the little group of whispering officers awaiting their admiral's pleasure.
One officer stood apart, a captain of about his own age. There the similarity ended. He had pale, protruding eyes and a small, petulant mouth. He was tapping his fingers on his sword and staring at the door, and Bolitho guessed him to be the man who had been taken from the Phalarope. But he seemed unworried, merely irritated. He probably had influence at Court, or in Parliament, Bolitho thought grimly. Even so, he would need more than that to face Sir Henry.
As he crossed to the stairway the other captain met his stare. The pale eyes were empty of expression yet vaguely hostile. Then he looked away, and Bolitho reached the foot of the stairs where a marine orderly waited with his cloak.
Outside the inn the wind howled in his face and the rain dashed across his skin like ice rime. But as he walked slowly towards the Sally Port he noticed neither.
When he reached the Hard, Bolitho noticed that the highwater garland of slime and weed was all but covered by the angry, hissing wavelets, and he knew that the tide was nearing the flood. With luck he could get his new ship under way on the ebb. Nothing made a ship's company settle down to a fresh master more quickly than routine and work.
As he left the shelter of the last line of buildings he caught sight of the boat which waited to carry him away from the land. The oars were tossed, and swayed like twin lines of bare trees as the small craft rocked uneasily in the swell, and he guessed that each man in the boat was watching his slow approach. At the top of the stone ramp, his thick body framed against the cruising wavelets, was the familiar shape ai Stockdale, his personal coxswain. Aboard the Phalarope there would be one, friend at least, he thought grimly.
Stockdale had followed him from ship to ship. More like a trusting dog than a man. Bolitho often found time to wonder at the bond which had held them together, a link which was beyond explanation in words.
As a young and very junior lieutenant Bolitho had been sent ashore with a recruiting party during the uneasy peace, when he had considered himself more than fortunate to be spared the indignity of so many of his fellows, that of being beached and unwanted on half-pay. Volunteers had been few, but when about to return to his ship to face the wrath of his captain Bolitho had seen Stockdale standing miserably outside a local inn. Stripped to the waist he had made a truly imposing figure, his thickset body a mass of muscle and power. A loud-mouthed barker at his side had called to the small naval recruiting party that Stockdale was a prize-fighter of great repute, and that a golden guinea would be immediately awarded to any one of Bolitho's men who could lay him low. Bolitho had-been weary, and the thought of a cool drink at the inn while his men tried their luck overcame his normal objections to. what he thought to be a degrading spectacle.