The rain pattered against the gables of the George Inn. It was cold, miserable November weather, but the sitting room was warm and snug.
Captain Nicholas Ramage held his copy of the Morning Post upright in one hand, and sent his empty coffee cup back to the table with the other. He folded the crisp pages back on themselves, and read on. More columns about the bombardment of Copenhagen...
Ramage shook his head. He understood the reasons for the Copenhagen mission, but bombarding civilians seemed like a dreadfully un-English thing to do. He was secretly glad he been in the West Indies until last month, and had missed that commission. As he read, he reached absently for his coffee cup, and remembered only when his fingers touched cold porcelain that it was already empty.
“Tomorrow,” Sarah said. “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be back at sea.”
Her voice broke into Ramage's reading. He looked up over his newspaper at her, and was struck by her expression. She looked as if she was close to silent tears. His feelings of satisfaction evaporated. He’d taken her long silence for after-dinner contentment, when it was anything but that!
“The sooner I’m gone, the sooner I’ll be back,” he promised. He abandoned the Morning Post onto the table.
“I’m not sad because you’re going,” she said. “I’m sad because you're not even here yet.”
“I am here!” he said, surprised.
“You’re not really here. A week is not long enough. Gianna told me it always takes you a week to properly be here. She told me not to expect you to be sociable for the first week that you’re home. And now we’ve only had the first week, and she’s right …” She pressed her hands to her face. "Your heart is still at sea."
"My heart is with you," he said. "Always."
She shook her head, and lowered her hands. "I wish you didn't have to go," she whispered.
He knew that she was feeling: the cold dread of parting from a lover in wartime. Fear for what could happen to him, far beyond her reach, beyond her knowledge. She would not even know that he was in danger, until months after it would be too late. He knew what she was feeling, because he felt the same. He was afraid for her too, when he was at sea and so far away. He could control his own fate, but he could not protect his wife from so far away.
“Listen," he said, intently. "Lisbon is not that far. I will probably come back in two months. And then I will take leave. I'll write to the Admiralty, and I'll insist.”
“And what if this business with Portugal does not blow over?” she said. “What if you and the Dido spend the next two years blockading Lisbon? What if we never have enough time to...?”
There was a knock at the door. “Captain?” a voice called.
Sarah shut her mouth instantly.
“Come in,” Ramage called.
The Marchesa di Volterra’s bodyguard opened the door, and looked in. He saw Ramage sitting there, and nodded to Ramage as if granting some solemn military secret to his Naval counterpart.
A moment later Gianna herself came into the room.
“Nico!” Gianna said. “Dear Sarah!” She swept across the room.
"Gianna," Sarah said. Sarah got up and went to meet her. The two young women embraced each other warmly.
Ramage sat back, and watched them fondly.
Ramage’s wife and his ex-lover sharing the same house; what London high society made of Ramage’s household, he couldn’t imagine.
Ramage had once been absolutely certain that Gianna was the love of his life. He had met her in 1796, after the sinking of the Sibella frigate, and he had rescued her from Napoleon’s cavalry. During those hectic days, the English lieutenant and the Italian aristocrat had fallen in love.
Back then they had loved each other wildly, but over the years since their feelings had changed. Duty, and religion, and differences in character had pushed them apart, but they were both too stubborn and too proud to change for each other. When the Peace of Amiens was signed, Gianna had insisted on returning to her tiny Tuscan kingdom. When she disappeared, Ramage and his family had reluctantly given her up for dead. Bonaparte would never have let the Marchesa di Volterra live. He would have shot her, the way he had shot the duc d’Enghien. Ramage had mourned Gianna, and then he had met Sarah, and married her.
But he mourned her too soon. Gianna slipped through Bonaparte’s fingers, and escaped. Ramage's father had wept with relief when he saw Gianna alive. His parents still loved Gianna like the daughter they never had. Sarah quickly warmed to Gianna as a de facto sister-in-law, and Gianna quickly warmed to Sarah as a fitting wife for the annoying Nico. They liked each other, and to Ramage that was all that mattered. The people he loved were happy, and he cared not a jot for anyone else. London high society could gossip about the Ramage ménage à trois until they burst.
“This wind!” Gianna complained. “It is too cold!”
“Go, and sit by the fire,” Sarah said to her. “Warm your hands.”
“I will do that!" Gianna agreed. She stretched out her hands toward the flames, warming her palms. "I saw the Dido from the Point. She is still swarming with the boats."
“My first lieutenant has been lighting a fire under my crew,” Ramage said. “There are still a thousand things to do before tomorrow. I want to get away on the ebb tide at dawn."
Sarah sat down in her chair, and watched her husband.
Nicholas Ramage had a strong hawkish nose, and deep-set brown eyes. It was the same face Sarah saw on his father, the Earl of Blazey, and on the portraits that hung in the family home in Cornwall. Two scars ran over his right eyebrow. Sarah had felt other old scars, that ribboned over his body; she had seen him lying bleeding and unconscious on his ship's deck, with the ship's surgeon bending over his body. He was tall, and his black hair was tied back in a long queue at the nape of his neck. He was beautiful, she thought.
"Did you get the chance to say farewell to Paolo?” he was saying to Gianna.
“Accidenti!” Gianna said, annoyed. “Yes, but not long enough! He barely had a few minutes for his Aunt Gianna!”
“The first lieutenant has been lighting a fire under him, too!” Ramage said. He was aware that Sarah had fallen into an introspective silence, staring at him with misty eyes. “More than most, actually. I told you that Paolo has been doing most of Mr Southwick’s work for him?”
“He told me, too,” Gianna said. “He is very proud.”
“It’s a good arrangement,” Ramage said. “Southwick gets to keep his arthritis warm, and Paolo gets to pick Southwick's brains. Every scrap of Mr Southwick’s knowledge will be useful to Paolo one day."
"You'll put his name forward for another examination?" Gianna asked.
“As many times as it takes,” Ramage promised. Paolo Orsini had crashed disastrously through two examinations in a row, but Ramage was sure the boy would get it right on his third attempt.
“You are leaving before he gets another chance!” Gianna said. “How are you managing, cara?”
Sarah started, as if surprised in some deep thought. “It gets harder, every time,” she admitted. “The week has flown by!”
“You must come with me tomorrow morning!” Gianna suggested. “We can take the carriage to the – what is that place? Gullkicker Point, yes! We can watch the Dido sail.”
“No, don’t,” Ramage said. “It's undignified.”
Sarah looked at him, sudden hesitation on her face, but Gianna tossed her head with a sudden flare of anger.
“Undignified!” she said, echoing her complaint with a flare of her hands. “What about watching your husband sail away after only one week of leave? That’s undignified!”
“That’s not undignified; that’s the Navy,” Ramage protested mildly.
“Ah-ah!” she wagged her finger at him. “The Navy promised you six months! And now they say, No, turn around, go now! Andiamo! It’s not fair.”
“The Navy needs the Dido in Lisbon,” Ramage said.
“The Navy has other ships! What about that big one, right here in Portsmouth? The Gladiator? The coalescent ship, yes. The Dido needs docking, you said so yourself! They must send their coalescent ship instead."
“Convalescent ship,” Ramage corrected, trying to keep a lid on his temper.
Gianna shuttled back to Italian. “Ah, Nico! I can tell when you are losing an argument, because you start correcting my English!”
Ramage retorted in English. “I can tell when you’re losing an argument, because you start yelling in Italian! I won’t allow you to go to the Point. I forbid it.”
“Bah!” Gianna said, dismissing his words with an imperious flick of her hand. “You forbid it. Since when do you forbid me? ” She stamped her foot for emphasis; a stamp which Ramage knew all too well.
And here they were, fighting again! He thought he had got away from fighting with Gianna when he married Sarah! Infuriating Volterrani! Ramage opened his mouth, and was surprised when he heard Sarah laugh.
Ramage glanced at her, surprised.
She saw the surprise on his face, and her laughter broke out in peal, rocking her backward on her chair. She pressed one hand to her face, and laughed at him over her fingertips. “You’re hysterical!” she hiccuped at them both.
And just like that, Ramage’s battle was lost. He raised both hands. “Je me rends! I surrender. Don’t shoot.”
“There! You see? He is not as stupid as he looks!” Gianna said, turning to Sarah and waving one hand at Ramage. “Allora, I will have the carriage ordered around at six, and we will go and wave farewell. And he will be back sooner than you know it. He will,” she glared her threat at Ramage.
"I will," Ramage promised. He’d failed to cheer Sarah up, but Gianna had managed to make her laugh. Any argument with Gianna was worth losing if it made Sarah laugh. He'd already fought with Gianna over every topic under the sun, he didn't care if he lost a few more. And he knew that Gianna was tough. She'd come back from France fiercer than ever. He knew that she would protect Sarah in his absence as if Sarah was her sister.
"If it makes you feel better," Ramage said to Sarah, "then do it."
“It might,” Sarah said. “I’ll be able to wave goodbye at you until the very last moment.”
“Then do it,” Ramage agreed. “And when we’re leaving, you'll know that I’ll be looking back at you.”
Ramage left the George Inn and walked down to the docks, feeling sick and heavy inside. He had taken leave of Gianna with a peck on her cheeks. He had stooped to kiss Sarah on the lips, and then turned his back on his family, and went out into the rain.
He was leaving behind the woman he loved more than anyone in the world – but he could do nothing else. He had a duty to do, and a war to fight. The Ramage family had always served their country in war. The Royal Kalendar gave his family’s motto, surname and heir: "Blazey, E.I540. Nec dextrorsum nec sinistrorsum. Neither to the right nor the left. Ramage, V. Ramage." The Earldom was one of the oldest in the country, and the Viscountcy, which Ramage was allowed to use as the eldest son, was even older. And for almost all of those generations the Ramage family of St Kew had served their King at sea. The family church at St Kew in Cornwall was filled with memorial plaques, commemorating ancestors who had died on distant waters, fighting forgotten battles. Noblesse oblige: along with his family's wealth and title came the expectation that he would do his duty.
One day, he promised himself. One day he would retire, and never leave Sarah’s side again. One day…
His gaze was interrupted by a familiar figure walking along the street him. “Mr Orsini!” he called.
Paolo Orsini broke into a jog to meet him, and Ramage paused to wait for him.
Midshipman the Count Orsini had grown into a tall and handsome young man. He had a rich Italian complexion, and liquid black eyes. His black hair was brushed forward in a fashionable Brutus cut, and the style suited him. Paolo Orsini could have modeled for Caravaggio, Ramage thought, if Caravaggio had ever painted the uniform of a master’s mate.
“Good evening, Uncle Nico,” Paolo said in Italian, making a bow.
“Good evening, Paolo,” Ramage said in the same language, surprised by the formality. When they were discussing the ship’s business, Orsini spoke to him in English, and called him ‘sir.’ Orsini rarely called him Uncle Nico, unless it was a private conversation between Gianna’s nephew and his almost-uncle.
“Are you returning to the ship?” Ramage asked. “I am going to hire a boat after I've seen the Admiral, and you can share it.”
“Not yet, Uncle, I am going to go back in the ship’s cutter. No, I came looking for you, Uncle. I have brought a letter. ”
Orsini reached into his pocket. “I was asked to bring it to you, Uncle, and put it into your hand directly. Which I am now doing.”
Orsini held out the letter, and Ramage took it.
His own name was written on the letter in clumsy print. He turned it over. It was sealed with a nugget of glue, instead of wax. It had been written by someone who could not afford proper sealing wax.
“Do you know what this is?” Ramage asked, unease spreading in him.
“I have an idea, yes,” Orsini said. “They consulted me, because they were worried lest it be considered a mutinous assembly.”
“Is it a mutinous assembly?” Ramage asked, surprised.
“It isn’t, Uncle. I think you will understand when you read it. And I was told the letter does not need a reply. I mean, that it does not want a reply. By your leave, Uncle Nico?” and now Paolo was bowing again, another oddly formal gesture for this cold wet dockyard.
“Of course,” Ramage said. “I will see you again in the ship.”
Orsini moved away.
Ramage turned about, until he spotted the light spilling from the fanlight over an office doorway. He stepped up under the portico so that no rain could smear the ink. There was just enough light from the salt-smeared fanlight to read.
He hoped the letter was not what it looked like: a letter of grievances from the seamen. Ramage had never received one before, but the Navy took a very dim view of them.
Ramage broke the seal, and unfolded the letter. He looked down on a square of rough handwriting, with a swirl of signatures around it. Uh-oh, he thought. The men’s signatures were written all around the text in a circle so that no one man’s name could be picked out as the ringleader. It was a round-robin.
He had to tilt the paper against the light to read it.
We are all good Freinds in this Ship and Honest Men and good freinds need to look after each othor and it is for this Resin that we are rating to you regoding our shipmate Mr Thomas Jackson of South Carolina who is a Good Man and true freind but he is also fifty three years in ages and that on the 24 instant of October last Month at Night he did nearly fall from the Fore Top Galant Mast being only presarved from his Doom by the Swift Action of a nearby Shipmate and that othor things of this Like have happened unseen by the Officers the Reason which we conker to be his age which is fifty three years in ages We Raspicfl submit that on your nolage of this you may be Moved to presarve Mr Jackson by removing him from the Watch and Station bill under the same Orders of Mr Southwick who is farbiding under Orders not to climb anything more high than a Chair and not to leave the Deck under any sirk and stands We Respectfully Submit that we rate this Letter not in any Spirit of dischord or Mautunous Assembly but as we are all good and Loyal seamen and freinds of Mr Jackson and servants of the King God Bless Him.
Ramage had to read it twice.
Well, Ramage thought, it was a grievance, although it was the damnedest grievance he’d ever heard of!
And it was written as a round robin, but not because they were afraid of the Navy ... They were afraid of a wrath much closer at hand than Whitehall! No wonder they had asked Paolo Orsini to deliver this letter! He looked at the names written in the round. William Stafford’s rough initials were there, and Alberto Rossi’s mark, and Gilbert’s signature, and twenty more; all good seamen, and all old friends of Thomas Jackson, 'Good Man and true freind!'
After one last appointment with the Port Admiral, Ramage walked through the dockyard gates in the rain. He was caught up in the crowds of men coming in the opposite direction, pouring out of the wharves and yards. The dock workers were knocking off from their day’s labour, and heading home to hot dinners, or to the Portsmouth taverns. Nobody paid any mind to the naval officer in his black cloak. He threaded his way through the sweaty throng, unnoticed.
He went down to the water steps, and was able to hire a boat to take him out to his ship. The boatmen left him alone to think as they rowed steadily out to where the Dido was anchored. He was left to his own thoughts, and could look at his ship as they approached her over the cold dark water.
HMS Dido was a ship of the line; one of the Royal Navy’s ‘wooden walls.’ In the growing gloom, she loomed like a fortress, as if she had been built straight into the water like a stone tower. Her figure-head scowled out to sea: Dido, the warrior queen of Carthage, with the oxhide of the legend draped over her shoulders. Inside her black hull there would be light, and friendship, and even love - but now as night fell she looked dark, and ugly, and cold. The rigging looked black against the stormy sky.
And she was all his. Every inch of her, every sail and spar, every weapon, and every one of the 625 men (and four women, only one of which he officially knew about) were his, until the Navy took her away from him, or he put her on some rock. She was 170 feet long down her gun deck. She weighed nearly two thousand tons fully loaded, and carried seventy-four great guns along two gun-decks. This one ship carried more artillery than some armies, and enough to blow his own beautiful Calypso out of the water. A seventy-four was a damned big ship, and every time he rejoined her he was struck anew.
It took a few minutes for the men on the Dido’s decks to notice the boat approaching. Heads began popping up over the bulwarks. “Boat ahoy!”
The coxswain of the boat stood up. “Dido!” he roared, so that the ship knew that her captain was approaching. The boatmen tossed their oars, water streaming down from the blades. The boatman hooked onto the Dido’s black hull.
“Thank you,” Ramage said. He paid the boatman, and stood up. The little boat was dancing on the waves, so that the battens leading up the Dido’s side shimmied up and down. He waited for a moment to measure the boat to lift him to meet the Dido, and stepped across to the manropes in a single stride. Then he was securely on the ladder, and climbing. He pulled himself in through the break in the bulwark, and into the light.
The salute broke out around him. The boatswain’s pipes screamed. The sideboys saluted. Ramage saw his first lieutenant waiting for him with a salute and a smile.
“Mr Kenton,” Ramage said, returning both salute and smile.
“Captain,” Kenton said, dropping his hand.
Peter Kenton was small, red-haired and blue-eyed, with freckled skin that tormented him in the tropics. He would never have the barrel chest and deep bellow of most sea officers, but he was an excellent sailor, and a calm leader in battle. Kenton might be tiny, but he was respected by men who towered a foot over his head; officers and seamen alike.
“Are we ready for sea, Mr Kenton?”
“I regret not yet, sir,” Kenton said, “But we will be by dawn.”
Ramage turned to walk aft toward the quarterdeck, and Kenton fell into place alongside. “What are we still lacking?”
“Carpenter’s stores, sir, gunner’s stores, hay for the manger…” Kenton rattled off his list from memory, ticking each item off on his fingers. “The new signal flags are aboard and stowed. And only one of the new midshipman came aboard; the other’s still missing. Captain Rennick's back an hour ago; the message caught up with him in Kent. And I’ve put all the receipts for everything on your desk, sir.”
“The men?” Ramage asked.
“All back but four, sir.”
“We’ll just have to sail without them,” Ramage said.
Most captains expected their crews to desert as soon as they had the chance, so for any other ship losing only four was not too bad. The port admiral had looked at Ramage as if he was insane when he said he was giving the larboard watch two weeks’ leave, and seriously expected them all back. He had given his men liberty before, but this time, their leave had been cut short. Those four men probably didn’t even know that their ship was sailing without them.
The second lieutenant, George Hill, was approaching Ramage and Kenton. “Good evening, Captain,” he greeted, touching his hat with a flawless salute.
“Evening, Mr Hill,” Ramage returned the salute.
George Hill was the opposite of Kenton in every way. He was tall and languid, with a louche drawl, and a wit that took some people aback. He was the son of a rich London banker and an equally rich Parisian socialite, and that made him about as French as an Englishman could be. There were very few Naval officers who wore their breeches as tight as a London macaroni, or referred to the bows of the ship as ‘the pointy end, what?’ The other officers had looked askance at him for a while, until Hill had proven that he knew how to both sail and fight, in either of his languages.
“All of our water’s been stowed, sir, bung-up and bilge-free,” Hill said.
“Good.” The Dido would have enough fresh water to last four months at sea. “The new storm jib?
“Not here yet, sir.”
“If it’s not in the ship by dawn tomorrow, we’ll have to patch the old one.”
“Yes, sir,” Hill agreed. “By your leave, sir, I think I can see Mr Orsini coming back with the green cutter. Please God, may he have our gunner’s stores with him…”
“Very good. Carry on, gentlemen,” Ramage said.
“Aye aye, sir,” Kenton said cheerfully, and moved away, rubbing his hands together energetically. “All right, you lot!” he called. “Let’s get back to that lift, the green cutter’s coming back…”
Ramage turned around, leaving them to their work. He had work of his own to do - and it was all his own fault. The captain had almost limitless authority in the ship, but he also had almost limitless liability. He could delegate everything, but he alone could sign for it, and his habit of delaying all his paperwork to a Thursday afternoon had come back to bite him. He had a week’s worth of clerical work to complete in one night and send ashore before they sailed tomorrow morning. His clerk usually dealt with the grunt work, sending document after document past Ramage’s signature like a line of sheep, but Luckhurst had developed a bloody cough two days out from Portsmouth, and he had been sent ashore to the hospital. Ramage would have to handle the mountain of paperwork single-handed, and he had no-one to blame but himself.
He walked forward to the quarterdeck rail, and looked forward over the waist of the ship.
The third lieutenant, William Martin, was busy by the main hatch, deep in consultation over a sheaf of papers with the ship's purser. Martin was a cheerful young man, with bright blue eyes and a round face. He was popular in the ship, as much for his cheerful temper as for his flute-playing - a skill he was trying to teach Orsini, without much success.
Not that anyone was playing the flute tonight! The ship was a mess! Bundles and boxes were streaming in, minute by minute. There were piles of stores on the decks. Clearly, Kenton had decided to get everything in the ship willy-nilly, and sort out the finer details of trimming once they were at sea. HMS Dido was going to weigh anchor right on schedule, and that was all anyone outside the ship needed to know.
Thomas Jackson, Ramage told himself, firmly, shaking his head. He had to do something about Thomas Jackson, not stand here and day-dream.
Ramage looked around the ship until he spotted Jackson. The American was working by the larboard gangway, coordinating the falls of the red cutter. Jackson turned on his heel as if scanning the deck for any job he had forgotten, and spotted Ramage. He was far enough away that he need not salute, but Jackson lifted one hand in a flicker of a wave. Ramage returned the greeting. Between two men who had known each other so long, the gesture was as good as an embrace.
Officially, Jackson was just another of the 625 men in the Dido, and the only American listed in the muster book. He was the captain's coxswain, which meant that his duty was to steer Ramage's boat away from the Dido, to command the boats’ crews, and to maintain the boats themselves.
But the official records said so little! Thomas Jackson had been at Ramage’s side when he went ashore to the Torre di Buranaccio, and met Gianna. The Torre di Buranaccio had been the greatest turning point of Ramage’s life, although he hadn't known that at the time. After the Torre, he had gained his first command; he had been put on trial for his life by Captain Croucher; he had met Lord Nelson. Ships, mutinies, and pirates ... hurricanes and wrecks … St Vincent and Trafalgar … it had all started that night in Torre di Buranaccio, and Jackson had been at Ramage's side through all of it.
No, Ramage thought, the muster book did not hint at the history between the English aristocrat and the American seaman. They had sailed together, fought together, saved each other’s lives more often than they could count.
Ramage realized that his hand was moving up to rub the old scar above his brow.
Ramage knew the mastheads well. He rarely climbed aloft now, but there were some things you did not forget. When you were so high in the air, the ship’s motion was amplified so that the mast rotated around several yards. The wind clutched at your body. The void seemed to drag at your eyes. The deck far underneath you looked as tiny as a wooden clog. There were no life-lines up there, no safety-nets. A fall from that height would be fatal; maybe not instantly, but inevitably.
Jackson was not a topman, but he still went up to the mastheads often. Jackson had the best eyesight in the ship, and a bottomless memory, and Ramage regularly sent him up to the masthead with a telescope. If Jackson said that the strange ship in the distance was, say, the Bedford, then Ramage could be sure that she was. Jackson was very rarely wrong; Ramage trusted his judgement almost as well as his own.
But all that would have to stop. The topmasts were not the place for a man who was over fifty, and losing his balance.
It wouldn’t be enough to just order Jackson down, either, Ramage thought. Jackson would know that someone had ratted out his secret to the Captain. The letter in Ramage’s pocket was a plea for assistance by Jackson’s friends, to the only power who could help them - and at least Ramage was not afraid of his own coxswain's anger. Ramage would have to change the Watch and Station Bill so that Jackson never went aloft, without realizing that never going aloft was the reason for the sudden change.
And he would have to think of a way to keep Jackson aft. A seventy-four was a damned big ship. If he promoted Jackson away from the quarterdeck he would never have reason to speak to him again, and he didn’t want to lose that. Somewhere aft, then; somewhere he was still around the quarterdeck every day. Some innocuous post that would keep Jackson’s feet squarely on the deck…
“Accidenti!” Paolo Orsini complained. “This English weather! I do not understand why the people of England do not all move to France! The sun shines in France! It shines rather a lot!”
He climbed from the foremast shrouds to the rail, and jumped down to the deck. His clothes were wet outside and in, from sweat as much as from the rain. His uniform felt as clammy as if he had been pressed into a pastry-case.
The old sailing-master Mr Southwick met him on the ship’s fo’c’sle. Southwick was carrying the speaking-trumpet that he was using to shout his orders at the men aloft. Southwick was strictly forbidden to climb anything higher than a chair, and Orsini was doing all the physical climbing for him instead.
“I don’t know why you dislike the rain so much, when all that is right alongside!” Southwick gestured with one hand over the ship’s side.
“Because that does not fall out of the sky into my eyes!” Orsini said. “It is too cold!”
“You’ve only sailed in warm waters, my boy,” Southwick said. “We might be posted to Russia next. You’ll cry for this nice soft English rain one day, you’ll see.”
“I will deal with that when it happens," Orsini said firmly. "For now, let us go to Lisbon!”
“You have thin blood, that’s what your problem is, lad. You need a brisk Baltic winter to toughen you up.”
Southwick looked upward, bending from his knees so that his spine did not bend the wrong way. He watched the men who were working in the foretop, ensuring that nothing up there had perished under the baking sun of the West Indies. Scraps of rope were tumbling down from aloft.
Orsini watched him. He could tell that Southwick’s spine was hurting him. Soon, he knew, Mr Southwick would be retiring to his cabin with a hot water bottle and a mustard plaster. His rheumatism seemed to have got worse since they had sailed from the Caribbean, as if old age had been waiting for an English November to leap out at him. Southwick was much too old to be at sea.
And yet, no-one wanted to leave him on the beach. He had gone to sea as a ship’s boy at the age of nine. The sea was his life. Even the captain did not want to leave Mr Southwick behind! Uncle Nicholas had immediately agreed, when Orsini had offered to take over the physical parts of Mr Southwick’s job. Orsini had not even needed to use any of the elaborate rhetorical arguments he had prepared to make his case.
Speaking of Uncle Nicholas… Orsini turned around, and stared aft.
He could see Uncle Nicholas on the quarterdeck, pacing back and forth. He was rubbing those scars on his brow, the way he always did when he was thinking. Orsini could see the men, glancing at their captain’s fierce face, and deciding to keep out of his path.
If only the Captain knew how well his crew knew his mannerisms! The combinations of stammering, blinking, and rubbing those scars were shared among the ship’s company like a Masonic code. “When Mr Ramage starts blinkin’ his eyes and wobblin’ his Rs, it’s time to tack about, toot sweet!”
It was strange, too, how the men called the Captain ‘Mr Ramage.’ He was a titled aristocrat, but to his men he was Mr Ramage. He was never the Old Man, or the Skipper - only Mr Ramage. Orsini guessed it was a term of affection. He was theirs. He could be a lord elsewhere - but he was their Mr Ramage.
Ah, there it was! The Captain had an idea! Ramage stopped short and stood rigidly, staring as if struck blind. Then he whipped around on his heel and marched under the overhang of the poop deck, toward his own cabin.
“Mr Orsini!” Southwick’s exasperated voice broke into Orsini’s thoughts. “Are you going to stand there and dream all night? Out along the jib-boom, if you please, my boy!”
“Aye aye, sir!”
Ramage's cabin door opened directly behind the ship’s wheel, so that he could reach it in a few strides if there was an emergency at night. He walked around the wheel, and nodded a greeting to the Marine sentry who stood guard on his door. "Evening, Hales," he said, opening his door. "Please pass the word for my coxswain."
"Aye aye, sir!" the Marine said, and inhaled his leathery military lungs. Ramage closed the door behind him quickly.
"PASS THE WORD FOR THE CAPTAIN'S COXSWAIN!"
Ramage walked through his day cabin-cum-office, bypassing the desk heaped with unfinished paperwork. He walked aft through the glass doors into the great cabin.
In the Royal Navy, rank equalled space, and the captain had the most space of all. The sternlights were a sweep of square windows, stretching across the whole width of the ship’s stern and sloping down toward the ship’s wake. It was furnished for the domestic comfort of a gentleman, with a long dining table, comfortable stuffed chairs, and a wine cooler. In candle-light, as now, the white bulkheads were softened to a buttery yellow.
Ramage had two more cabins. Just forward of the great cabin were his sleeping cabin and his day cabin - the office where he did most of his daily work. He even had a private water-closet, built into the corner of the stern gallery. The great cabin could have been any gentleman's drawing room - except for the 12-pounder cannons in the corners, huge black beasts yoked to their carriages. The domestic and the destructive shared the same space; the Dido must be a machine of war, before all else.
Ramage walked around the end of his dining table, and stopped in front of the sternlights. He stood looking at his own reflection in the dark glass.
He turned his idea over again, but he could find no flaws in his plan. Once he had connected his two problems, they seemed to click together in his mind like two magnets. He was pleased, actually, at how clever he was. No-one would ever suspect the truth; his two problems solved each other too neatly.
Ramage had just had time to open the book that listed the Navy’s rates of pay and look up the figure he wanted, when the Marine sentry knocked on the door and announced that his coxswain wanted to come in.
“Come in, Jackson!” Ramage shouted.
A moment later Jackson came into the day cabin. He saw Ramage through the glass door to the great cabin, and walked through to meet him. He paused with his hand at his brow.
“You sent for me, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” Ramage said. “Did you tell Stafford to take over from you?"
"I did, sir."
"Very good. There’s something I need to discuss with you. Let’s sit, shall we?”
Ramage sat down on the bench under the sternlights, and Jackson took a seat on the settee opposite him.
“Remind me, Jackson – how long have you been in the Navy?”
Jackson frowned. He rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Let’s see. I joined the Sibella in Toulon in ‘93. So that would be about fourteen years, sir.”
“I’ve offered you a promotion to master’s mate before, but you didn’t take it,” Ramage said.
“No, sir. I reckon I like it well enough where I am. And I think I’m a bit long in the tooth to be jumping around in the cockpit with the midshipmen.”
Long in the tooth… that was one way of putting it. Jackson’s face was lean and tanned, with high cheekbones, and a hard mouth. His hair had receded, and what was left was more grey than blond. How had Ramage not noticed that Jackson was growing old right under his gaze?
Jackson’s grey eyes were still sharp, though. He was watching Ramage keenly.
“The reason I asked to speak to you is because I would like to offer you a new berth in the ship,” Ramage said. “It’s a promotion, of sorts. And it’s a position that must be filled urgently.”
“You’ve heard about poor old Luckhurst?”
“I did, sir, poor man.”
“I want to offer you his job.”
There was a momentary silence. Jackson blinked. “You want me to be a clerk?” he blurted.
“Not just a clerk! My secretary,” Ramage said quickly.
“A promotion, you said, sir.”
“It is a promotion,” Ramage said. “You’ll have your own cabin, and the right to walk the quarterdeck as one of the cockpit officers. You’ll have the same pay as a midshipman, and you’ll mess in the gunroom. That’s why I want to give the berth to you. I know you’re capable of the jump up to the quarterdeck. Thomas Jackson, confidential secretary to Captain Lord Ramage … how does that sound?”
“I’ve never been one for pushing papers, sir.” Jackson wrung up his mouth to the left, as if the idea was a novel flavour that he wasn’t sure he liked yet. Ramage had a nasty vision of Jackson suddenly forgetting how to write in a round hand.
“It doesn't have to be permanent," he said quickly. "But I need a clerk immediately - I mean secretary - and I don't have time to look for one. It doesn't have to be permanent.”
Jackson ran his hand over his hair. “On one condition.”
“You're not in a position to make conditions,” Ramage told him, sharply. “This is a promotion, not a negotiation.”
Jackson looked at him, closely. “Are you ordering me to take the job, sir?”
“Well, no – but you can’t always expect to arrange things to your own liking. You can take it, or you can turn it down.”
“Well, you know my motto, sir. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of arranging things to my own liking.” Jackson grinned. He was looking for Ramage’s reaction.
Ramage suspected he had just had a piece of revolutionary rhetoric lobbed at him, but he had fallen into his own trap. He’d sold himself his idea, as much he’d sold it to Jackson. The two halves of his problem fitted together too neatly. He knew Jackson, and trusted him. His officers trusted him. The men knew that Jackson had sailed with Ramage for years, and they would make no trouble about one of their own suddenly being elevated to the quarterdeck. The two halves of Ramage’s problem fitted together too nicely. Click, went the little magnets in his mind.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Ramage sighed. “All right. One condition.”
“The same thing that I asked you before, sir, in the old Kathleen. You’ve called me A Senior Rating in all your despatches. I’ve been anonymous all this time, and I’d like to stay that way. Sir.”
"Really?" Ramage stared at him. “You know that you would be famous by now, if you had let me name you! You know that, don't you? Your name would be in that song!”
Someone had written a song about Ramage and Jackson rescuing the Marchesa di Volterra from the Torre di Buranaccio. Ramage cringed whenever he heard it – and these days, he seemed to hear it everywhere. He took pains to tell people that he never said the words the lyrics put into his mouth, but Jackson did not need to bother. Nobody knew the name of The Faithful Seaman, Stout-hearted And True.
“It’s not about the song, sir,” Jackson said, firmly. “I have my own reasons. I’ll be your clerk, or secretary, or anything you want to call it - as long as my name does not leave the ship.”
Ramage rubbed his index finger against the scar on his brow. He had been calling Jackson a 'Senior Rating' for years. Only a few people in the Admiralty knew that all the 'Senior Ratings' in his despatches were really the same man, over and over again. It wouldn't be difficult to carry on as he had begun. It certainly didn't matter as much to Ramage as it did to Jackson.
“Very well, I accept.”
“Then you have yourself a clerk, sir,” Jackson said.
“Not clerk,” Ramage corrected. “Confidential secretary!”
“Secretary, then.” Jackson held out his hand, suddenly very American again.
Ramage took his hand, and they shook hands firmly on the agreement. “I’ll pass the word to Mr Kenton. Come along. There’s a mountain of work to do.” He stood up.
“Sir? You want me to start now?”
“Yes, of course. We’re sailing in the morning. The last of the papers need to be sent ashore at first light.”
“I’ve left everything I was doing, sir.”
“You did tell Stafford to take over from you,” Ramage said. “And you know Stafford is more than ready for it.” Ramage walked to the day cabin, where the stack of papers and books was waiting on the table to be dealt with. Jackson followed him through the door, and stopped dead, staring.
“Oh, sir!” he said. “All that? By tomorrow?”
Ramage pulled out a chair, and pushed Jackson into it with one hand on his lean shoulder. “The Navy,” he told Jackson, cajoling, “goes to war in paper ships upon seas of ink, and fires broadsides of quills...”
“And here I thought the Army loved paperwork,” Jackson grumbled.
“Well, if a warship is the equivalent of a regiment,” Ramage said, pulling out his own chair and sitting down. “Then I suppose you’ve joined the general staff.”
“God help the general staff!”
“It’s not that bad. Here we go. Watch and Station Bill, Muster Book, General Order Book, Captain’s Journal …"
“God,” Jackson said.
“And that’s not all,” Ramage said, relentlessly. He picked up his copy of the Seaman’s Vade Mecum, and put it down in front of Jackson. “Any other form you need is probably in here. It has specimens of just about every form you can imagine. Lists, forms, tables, affidavits, musters, invoices, pay tickets – this one is important – surveys, inventories. Now, shall we begin? That was Luckhurst’s, but it’s yours now. I keep the sand here, and if you need more ink or paper, the purser has them. You’ve got a pen? Let’s start with this one…”
They worked together for a few hours in companionable brevity. They made headway into the heaps of paperwork, setting each form aside as they worked into a neat square stack. Ramage was surprised when he heard the ship’s bell ring out eight bells.
“Time flies when you’re having fun!” he said, looking up.
“This is what you call fun, sir?” Jackson tapped the sand from the paper, and grinned at Ramage. “Remind me never to accept an invitation to your house.”
“Remind me never to extend one," Ramage said. He shook his head. "You Americans! You're all revolting!”
"Oh, sir!" Jackson groaned, at hearing Stafford's favourite joke.
He was struck by how comfortable Jackson's company was.
They had been much closer, once. In the Kathleen, there had been only sixty men, and the distance between the captain and his coxswain had not been that wide. Now, there were over six hundred men in the Dido. A seventy-four was a damned big ship - far too big for the captain and his coxswain to have any sort of intimacy. He had lost Jackson's company, slowly, without even noticing it.
This had been a good idea, he thought. He might never have thought of it himself without the Round Robin, but he knew it was a good idea. He could not talk to his coxswain any time he wanted without damaging discipline, but he could talk to his secretary all day, without anyone looking askance at them.
There was a knock at the door and the Marine sentry announced that the ship’s surgeon wanted to be admitted. A moment later, Dr Bowen was standing at attention. “Good evening, sir,” Bowen said.
“I was starting to think we’d lost you!” Ramage said.
He had been looking closely at Jackson, and now he found himself looking at Bowen.
Bowen had aged, too, but he had not changed. His temples were grey, but he still moved with the precision of a skilled surgeon.
Bowen had been one of the most highly-paid surgeons in London. Still merely a tradesman, in the rigid structures of Society – but a trade in which the lives of lords and dukes had rested in his skilled hands.
Had – before Bowen drank his way out of his practice, out of his career, and into the Navy, the only employer desperate enough to hire a drunken surgeon. In 1797 he washed up in the Triton, where Ramage had refused to trust his men’s health to a drunkard. He and Southwick had set out to dry Bowen by force.
Ramage could still vividly recall those days – when Bowen had shrieked in delirium, when he had begged for a drop – just a drop – just one more drop. But the Articles of War had done for Bowen what no amount of willpower could do – and, mirabile dictu, the rough cure had worked. Bowen never touched liquor, and claimed never to want any. He could have returned to his lucrative practice, but instead he devoted his expertise to the 625 men (and four women, Ramage reminded himself) of HMS Dido.
“Did you manage to get everything you needed?” Ramage asked.
Bowen shook his head. “Frankly, sir, no, I did not. The Transport Board sent half of what I requested.”
Ramage sighed. “Another price we have to pay to weigh anchor on time.”
“The good news is that I managed to get an extra supply out of my own pocket. That’s where I was tonight.”
“Damn,” Ramage said. “I’ll refund you the cost of that. Out of my own pocket.”
“I knew you would, sir, so I had them write me a receipt.”
“Ah, Jackson, that’s for you. You know which file to put that in?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said. The receipt was whisked away.
“On a lighter note, sir,” Bowen asked, “how is Lady Sarah? And the Marchesa?”
“They’re both well, and send their best wishes.”
“The wardroom was hoping the ladies would be able to come and visit the ship.”
“They would have, if there had been more time.” Time… time… the one thing Ramage had not had. The sorrow that had been lying in the back of his mind leaped up, but he pressed it down again. “Lady Sarah was rather upset that we’re leaving so soon.”
“Ah,” Bowen said, nodding. “Well, hopefully that is a good sign?”
“A sign of what?” Ramage asked.
“In my experience, sir, ladies become rather over-wrought if they’re expecting.”
“Not after only one week, surely!” Ramage said.
Jackson cleared his throat. “It’s possible, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”
“But it’s early days yet, sir, nothing to worry about,” Bowen said, soothingly. “These things happen on their own time-table.”
“They certainly do,” Ramage said, annoyed. Everyone acted as if talking about it could make it happen faster! There were very few subjects he wanted to talk about less! “If that’s all, doctor, thank you. You may carry on.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Bowen said. He left the cabin.
“Why does everyone ask me that?” Ramage grumbled. “What do people expect me to do? Post her a baby in the mail?”
“It’ll come, sir,” Jackson said, absently. “When the time is right, you’ll see.”
Ramage sat back in his chair and looked at Jackson. The American was holding up Bowen’s receipt, and frowning at it. He’d already put Ramage’s complaint from his mind.
“That’s quite a lot of bandages,” Jackson said.
“Jackson,” Ramage said.
“Sir?” Jackson raised his grey eyes from the receipt.
“I know that the ship’s people look to you as a sort of envoy to me.”
Jackson nodded. “They think I’m in your confidence, sir. And that you’re in mine.”
Ramage couldn't imagine what secrets a seaman would have, but he supposed he could understand why the men thought Ramage shared them. He had known Jackson for longer than any of them; even Southwick. “Whatever you hear in this cabin, cannot be shared out of this cabin,” he said. “Not even Stafford and Rossi."
“I understand, sir."
"Because Rossi can keep his mouth shut, but Stafford – not a hope. The whole ship will know."
"Whatever I hear, I’ll keep to myself," Jackson said. "Nothing shared within these walls will leave these walls."
“Confidential secretary,” Ramage said.
“Confidential, confidential secretary,” Jackson agreed.
Hours later, Jackson climbed the ladder to the fo’c’sle. His hand navigated up the familiar ladder by feel.
His eyes were tired from squinting at his own nib by candlelight. He had not written late into the night since the end of the Revolution. He did not have the stamina that he used to.
He and the Captain had both worked until the small hours of the morning. They had been interrupted every few minutes by this officer or that, reporting that this store had been taken on board, or that this task was finished. Beyond the cabin door, the ship had echoed with the thumping and shouting of the men on deck, working by lamplight. Finally, around midnight, the sounds of hard labour had died down. Mr Kenton reported that the Dido was ready for sea.
Jackson sent the bundle of papers ashore in the last boat, just in time. The Dido would sail this morning with a clean slate, with nobody ashore the wiser.
He tracked down Stafford by the sound of his accent, echoing in the dark. Stafford and Rossi were perching on the slide of one of the fo’c’sle’s carronades. They were keeping themselves warm, and waiting out the last few minutes of their watch, and Stafford was talking.
“It mazed me ‘ead, all that noise! An’ they makes nuffin’ but pulley blocks wiv it. The ‘ole works, and that’s all it does, makes blocks, all day! ‘Oondreds of blocks!”
Stafford’s accent put him smack in the heart of London, within the sound of the Bow Bells. He was a true Cockney, and very proud of being born in the greatest city in the world. Sometimes, Jackson suspected him of hamming up his accent on purpose.
“Does not sound the interesting,” Rossi said.
“You ain’t ‘eard yet ‘ow many blocks they makes there! ‘Ow many blocks do you fink they can make wiv a steam engine? Go on, guess!”
“Boh! I don’t care. Here is Jacko,” Rossi said, spotting Jackson walking towards them.
Stafford was still banging on about his latest love. He’d gone ashore for a week’s leave, but he only got as far as the building that housed the Dockyard's new steam engine. He might never have come out at all, if someone from the Dido had not tracked him down and dragged him away from his new infatuation.
“Buongiorno!” Rossi said to Jackson.
“Is it buongiorno?” Jackson asked, stopping and crossing his arms against the cold. “Or is it still buona notte?”
“Is almost dawn!” Rossi said.
“Where’ve you been, Jacko?” Stafford asked. “You din’t come back from Mr Ramage las’ night.”
“Mr Ramage kept me busy last night. And I have news for you.”
“There’s been a change on the Watch and Station Bill.”
“Oh,” Stafford said, straightening his back with sudden interest. He got up off the carronade slide. He gave a sideways glance at Rossi. “Ah-ha. We knew that was comin’, din’t we, Rosey?”
“Si, si.” Rossi was staring at Jackson closely.
“Ah,” Stafford said, and tapped the side of his nose. “Me and Rosey ain’t as educa’ed as you, but we know which way the wind’s blowin.’ So what’s your new station, then?”
“I’ve been promoted,” Jackson said. “To captain’s clerk. Mr Ramage asked, and I accepted.”
There was a brief silence, in which the night sounds around them seemed to bubble louder.
“Clerk!” Stafford sucked in a breath, as if he’d been punched. Whatever Stafford had been expecting, that wasn’t it. “That weren’t what we meant! We din’t mean – oof!” Stafford grunted as Rossi hit him on the shoulder with rather a lot of force.
“Mamma mia, that is good news!” Rossi dived into a stream of Italian to emphasise his pleasure. “Good news! Clerk – that is more pay, si? And a cabin! And … you’ll be on the quarterdeck in action?”
“But…” Stafford said.
Rossi punched him on the shoulder again, and Jackson looked at him oddly. There was something here that he didn’t understand. He knew these two too well. Stafford had many virtues, but he had the cunning of a grape, and Rossi was trying to shut him up before he said something wrong.
“It means I’ll be on the quarterdeck, yes,” Jackson said. “It also means I’m off the larboard watch. No more standing watches with you boys. I’ll be an idler, from today.”
“Not just an idler,” Rossi said.
“Yes. I’ll be a senior petty officer, and not a rating. I’ll have a cabin next to the captain, on the quarterdeck. So, officially, from this moment…”
“This is ciao,” Rossi said. “Bye-bye. Just like that.”
“Just like that,” Jackson agreed. “And Staff, you’ll move up to captain’s coxswain in my place.”
“That wasn’t what we was espectin’,” Stafford said, as if he wanted to protest. He didn’t look happy about his promotion to coxswain, either.
“More pay for you,” Jackson pointed out. “And I’m not going anywhere. My cabin door will always be open to you two.”
“But it’s a cabin on the quar’erdeck, innit?” Stafford said. “That’s officer’s country. We can’t go in officer’s country!”
“I’ll still come up to the fo’c’sle to talk to you. And it's probably temporary, anyway. The Captain just doesn't have time to look for a proper educated man before we sail, that's all. Once he's found someone, I'll come back to the lower deck. I'm not going anywhere, Stafford!"
“Is good news,” Rossi said, as much to Stafford as to Jackson. “Are both happy for you, are we, Staff?” He gave his friend a poke in the shoulder.
“Yus,” Stafford said. “You deserves it, Jacko.”
The next morning, Ramage went up to the quarterdeck early. He had had only two hours of sleep, but he could probably catnap later, once they were clear of Portsmouth. So could Jackson, for that matter – he had a cabin of his own now, right next to Ramage’s own.
It was dawn, but the sky was still charcoal grey, and cold. Ramage’s appearance caused a stir, as the men realized that their captain was up and about. None of them approached him, but shifted to the lee side of the deck, yielding the windward side as tradition expected.
Ramage opened his telescope, and stretched it toward Gilkicker Point.
The light was dull, but he could see people there. They were mere blobs at this distance, but some of the blobs were a different shape. Yes, those were women’s dresses, rippling in the breeze. He blinked his eyes to sharpen his gaze, his lashes on the lens blotting out his view briefly.
He could not make out any details, but he knew they were there, hidden in that distant throng. Sarah was right over there, right now. He felt a warm flush over his skin. Even now, she was there, as close to him as she possibly could be. This moment, not last night, was their last contact.
He felt a twinge of sorrow, and pushed it down again. Not for a single second would he let any of the men around him notice how sad he felt.
The rain came down again, pattering on his hat and the shoulders of his cloak. The curtains of rain blocked out his view of the point in a sheet of grey.
He lowered the telescope, and turned his back on the land. He chose the right time to turn around, because Kenton was just climbing up the ladder from the quarterdeck.
Kenton put his hand to his hat. “Captain,” he said. “I have the honour to report that the Dido is ready for sea in all respects.”
Ramage nodded. “Well done,” he said. “The conn is yours this morning. Take us to sea, if you please.”
“Aye aye, sir. I have the conn!”
Kenton grinned, visibly delighted by the opportunity to take a two-decker to sea. He turned away, and his voice lofted into a shout. “All hands! Stand by to weigh anchor! Away aloft! Stand by, the deck watches!”
Kenton did not have a strong voice. He used a speaking trumpet to prevent his voice from breaking into an embarrassing squeak, but his orders drove the Dido into a buzz of activity. Seamen ran this way and that in a complex dance, tailing onto ropes, throwing themselves at the capstan, racing aloft. The Dido was startled awake from her week’s sleep.
Ramage could see the confusion of the new landsmen. To them, the whole performance must seem a riot of mad running and shouting. They were trying to follow their orders, without a clue as to what they were supposed to achieve. What were braces? What were sheets? What did ‘avast’ mean? Ramage saw a boatswain’s mate grab a man by the shoulder, and tow him bodily to the rope he was supposed to be hauling.
On the fo'c'sle, Mr Southwick would be standing by, ready to signal to the quarterdeck the position of the anchor, so that the loosening of the sails could be timed precisely. A crowd of seamen would be standing around the capstan by now, ready to throw their weight against the bars to raise the ship’s anchor. The capstan was like a great screw that would slowly wind the anchor cable back into the ship. The ship’s fiddler struck up a tune to encourage the efforts of the men pushing with all their strength.
The sound of the fiddle penetrated all the way aft. Instead of a more traditional ‘forebitter,’ Ramage recognised the opening bars of the Torre di Buranaccio. He couldn’t help letting out an annoyed grunt.
“Do you hear the song, Uncle?” Orsini asked, in Italian, touching his hat.
“I hope you know I never said half of the things I say in that song, and neither did Jackson!” Ramage said.
“Shall I tell them to stop?” Orsini asked.
“No,” Ramage said. “Absolutely not! I cannot let on that it’s embarrassing, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
He looked forward over the ship, and tried to close his ears to the annoying tune. The third lieutenant, William Martin, and the new fourth lieutenant, Jonathan Loach, were giving directions on the upper deck.
Ramage took the opportunity to examine Loach covertly.
Loach was older than the rest of the lieutenants, because he had spent longer getting to his commission. He had started on the lower deck and worked his way up, which made him something of a rarity in the Navy. Ramage had never had an officer under him who had ‘come up the hawser’ before, but he had been assured by the port admiral that Loach was a good officer, and deserved the step. It was just rather unfortunate about those scars…
“He’s a good fellow, Ramage,” the Port Admiral had said, “but it’s the first thing anyone remarks about him, and I’m afraid it leaves his good qualities in the shade. You’ll give him a good turn to show his paces, I’m sure…?”
Loach was handsome - on the left side of his face. On the right side, his face had been shredded from his chin to his right ear, and his nose was gone.
It wasn’t only the scar alone that was so hideous, or the missing nose. Patches of Loach’s beard were still doggedly growing in the crevices of his scars. His cheek was filled with holes, black craters where his beard could not be shaved. He looked as if his face was being eaten away by some ghastly disease. No wonder poor Loach had struggled to find a lieutenant’s berth. Getting a commission would have been difficult for any officer who wasn’t a gentleman, even without looking like that.
He heard Southwick’s hail from the fo’c’sle. He had been so engaged with staring at Loach, he had not been paying attention.
Dido’s anchor had been hauled in by brute force by the men at the capstan, and it was hanging below the hull, no longer clutching at the sea bed like an invisible fist. The ship was floating free.
The headsails were climbing their stays like shark’s teeth. The ship was turning, following her head around, toward the open sea. The courses dropped free from the yards, the wet canvas rumbling loudly. The sail handlers ran to the sheets and braces, hauling the yards around, trimming the sails. They were under way.
The first shot of the salute cracked. The smoke was dashed away on the icy wind.
“Flagship’s signalling, sir!” Orsini called. “Our number – telegraphic – “Bon voyage,” sir!”
“Acknowledge it,” Ramage said.
The Dido was standing out to sea. The arms of the Solent receded from around them, as if the ship was walking out from a dispassionate embrace. The Channel was coming up to meet them instead, as if welcoming them back to sea. Ramage saw the first dash of spray struck from the bows.
A moment later Dido’s jib lifted into the air, as her forefoot bit into the first swell. She hoisted her bulk up to rise to meet the sea as it passed under her, and the poop deck lifted under Ramage’s feet.
Ramage took a deep satisfied breath, enjoying the sensation of his ship coming to life again. It was a glorious movement, as if thousands of tons of oak and steel were breathing under his feet. He turned to look over the taffrail.
England was already receding into the haze behind them. If Sarah was still on the Point, all she could see of him was a grey blob as the Dido sailed away through the rain. She was gone...
A few cables away, a small lugger was following in the Dido’s wake.
That was odd, Ramage thought. Where could that boat be going? And why had they set so much sail in this fresh breeze? With that rig on that tack, surely they were risking a sudden gybe? They must be trying to catch up with the great battleship.
Ramage extended his telescope onto the little boat. The lugger leaped into detail inside the dark tunnel of the glass. He could see men below the lug sail. They were leaping up and down, waving their arms wildly.
“I do believe we are being pursued,” Ramage said.
Orsini heard him. He turned around and spotted the boat. The big signals telescope came up, parallel to Ramage’s own.
“That looks like Mr Mayweather," Orsini said.
“It is,” Ramage said. He slid the telescope closed, the rings clicking into the tubes. He turned and went quickly down the ladder to the quarterdeck.
“Mr Kenton!” he said.
“I have the conn!” Ramage said. He spoke loudly enough for all the men on the quarterdeck to hear. It was a formal statement; audibly handing over immediate control of the ship so that everyone on the quarterdeck knew whose sail orders to follow.
“You have the conn, sir!” Kenton echoed.
Ramage inflated his lungs, feeling the tendons in his neck stand out. “Stand by to heave to, there!” he bellowed.
He saw the startled expression on Kenton’s face.
“I’m sorry, Mr Kenton,” he said, keeping a straight face. “Bonaparte is going to have to wait. I’ve decided I absolutely cannot leave my wife.”
“Sir?” Kenton boggled.
"I'm going home for tea," Ramage added, enjoying the look on Kenton's face.
Kenton looked at Martin, but the third lieutenant also looked mystified.
Ramage left them to their puzzle, and began bellowing the orders that would take the speed off the Dido. As the ship turned, following the sound of Ramage’s voice, the hail came down from the masthead.
“Deck there! Boat astern is trying to catch our attention!”
“At last,” Ramage said. “I thought that lookout was asleep up there.”
“Ah,” Kenton said, realization dawning.
“We’ll heave to, and allow that boat to hook on,” Ramage ordered. "I think we'll find those are our four missing men!"
“And your tea, sir?” Kenton asked, grinning.
“Lady Sarah will bring it in a minute,” Ramage said. “Would you care for a biscuit?”
“Ginger for me, sir, if she has some,” Kenton said. “And hot tea in a flask.”
“Hot tea in a flask sounds delightful right now!” Ramage agreed. He shivered in his wet cloak at the thought.
A few minutes later, the Dido had been slowed to a crawl, and then Ramage hove her to. With her sails balanced against each other, the ship travelled neither forward nor backward, but drifted passively downwind like an enormous leaf.
By that time, the boat was alongside. Ramage saw five men scramble quickly from the lugger to the Dido, before they were hidden by the curve of the ship’s hull.
“You have the conn, Mr Kenton,” Ramage said. "Get us under way again, and take us to sea."
“Aye aye, sir,” Kenton said. “I have the conn.”
The boat was casting off already. The boatmen hauled up the lugger’s yard again and the sail filled as sharply as a paper bag. The boat was quickly cantering away from the Dido’s side.
Ramage left Kenton to it, and turned to face astern again. He pulled out the telescope, but it was still raining, and the light was too dull to see anything.
A minute later, he heard a voice. “Captain, sir?”
He turned, and found himself facing a boy in a midshipman’s uniform. Ye Gods, it was Jack Dawlish’s son!
“And who might you be?” Ramage demanded. He glared down at the boy, and tried not to laugh.
Jack Dawlish's son! The last time Ramage had seen this boy, he’d been a muddy little brat playing with ducks, and here he was, a naval officer in the larval stage! It seemed like just yesterday that Ramage, Dawlish, and Hornblower were midshipmen in the old Superb! Now all three of them were post-captains, and Ramage had agreed to take Dawlish’s son under his wing, as one day Dawlish or Hornblower would mentor his sons. When he had sons...
“Sir – Mr Midshipman Henry Dawlish, sir.” The boy saluted, but with the wrong hand. His voice was reedy. “Reporting for duty, sir!”
Behind little Dawlish, in a line, stood Ramage’s four missing sailors. They were standing at attention, their faces full of misgivings. Ramage decided to ignore them.
“You almost missed your ship, Mr Dawlish. Not a very promising start to your naval career, is it?”
“Yes, sir!” Henry Dawlish was trying not to grin. “But a miss is as good as a mile, sir!”
“Did you hire that lugger to chase us down?”
“Yes, sir,” the youth said. “None of us wanted to be left behind, sir! I paid the boatman, and these four men sailed it, sir.”
It must have been a wild chase, Ramage thought. Dawlish’s boy seemed to have initiative, at least, and enough character to get four grown men to go along with his idea.
“Very well. I think I shan’t toss you back over the side after all. Mr Bennett!” Ramage hailed the nearest midshipman.
“Sir,” Bennett said, crisply.
“Take Mr Dawlish down to the midshipman’s berth, and see him settled in. You’ll both be back here in fifteen minutes, if you please.”
“Yes, sir,” little Dawlish said, and then corrected himself before Ramage could tell him to. “I mean, aye aye sir.”
Bennett led the boy away. The four sailors followed him as well. Mr Southwick would have four 'Runs' to cross out in the muster book, Ramage thought.
Kenton came back up to Ramage, and whipped up one arm in a smart salute. “Sir,” he said.
Kenton’s face broke out in a wide grin. “I have the honour to report that HMS Dido is ready for sea in all respects!”