CORONET BOOKS Hodder & Stoughton
Copyright © 2003 by Julian Stockwin
First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Hodder and Stoughton First published in paperback in 2004 by Hoddcr & Stoughton A division of Hodder Headline
The right of Julian Stockwin to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
A Coronet paperback
13579 10 8642
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All characters in this publication arc fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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CockburnThe Articles of War, 1749
If any person in the fleet shall conceal any traitorous or mutinous practice or design, being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, he shall suffer death ...
D’amme, but that's six o' them — an' they're thumpers, Sir Edward!' The massive telescope that the first lieutenant of HMS Indefatigable held swayed in the hard gale, but the grey waste of winter sea made it easy to see the pallid white sails of line-of-battle ships, even at such a distance.
Captain Pellew growled an indistinct acknowledgement. If it was the French finally emerging from Brest, it was the worst timing possible. The main British battle fleet had retired to its winter retreat at Portsmouth, and there was only a smaller force under Rear Admiral Colpoys away in the Atlantic, off Ushant to the north, and the two other frigates of his own inshore squadron keeping a precarious watch — and those an enemy of such might could contemptuously sweep aside. Heaven only knew when the grudging reinforcements from the Caribbean would arrive.
'Sir—' There was no need for words: more and more sails were straggling into the expanse of the bay.
CockburnSilently, the officers continued to watch, the blast of the unusual easterly cold and hostile. The seas, harried by the wind, advanced towards them in combers, bursting against their bows and sending icy spindrift aft in stinging volleys.
The light was fading: the French admiral had timed his move so that by the time his fleet reached the open sea it could lose itself in the darkness of a stormy night. 'A round dozen at least. We may in truth say that the French fleet has sailed,' Pellew said drily.
The lieutenant watched eagerly, for the French were finally showing after all these months, but Pellew did not share his jubilation. His secret intelligence was chilling: for weeks this concentration of force had stored and prepared — with field guns, horses and fodder — and if reports were to be believed, eighteen thousand troops. If the entire fleet put to sea, it could have only one purpose .. .
'Desire Phoebe to find Admiral Colpoys and advise,' he snapped at the signal lieutenant. However, there was little chance that Colpoys could close on the French before they won the open sea. In the rapidly dimming daylight the swelling numbers of men-o'-war were direful.
'Sir! I now make it sixteen — no seventeen of the line!'
A savage roll made them all stagger. When they recovered it seemed the whole bay was filling with ships — at least the same number again of frigates; with transports and others there were now forty or more vessels breaking out into the Atlantic.
'Amazon is to make all sail for Portsmouth,' Pellew barked. It would reduce his squadron to a pitiable remnant, but it was essential to warn England while there was still time.
Yet the enemy sail advancing on them was not a line of battle, it was a disordered scatter - some headed south, shying away from the only frigate that lay across their path. Strings of flags rose from one of the largest of the French battleships, accompanied by the hollow thump of a gun. The gloom of dusk was fast turning to a clamping murk, and the signal was indistinct. A red rocket soared suddenly, and the ghostly blue radiance of a flare showed on her foredeck as she turned to night signals.
'So they want illuminations — they shall have them!' Pellew said grimly. Indefatigable plunged ahead, directly into the widely scattered fleet. From her own deck coloured rockets hissed, tracing across the windy night sky, while vivid flashes from her guns added to the confusion. A large two-decker trying to put about struck rocks; she swung into the wind, and was driven back hard against them. Distress rockets soared from the doomed ship.
'Can't last,' muttered Pellew, at the general mayhem. The driving gale from the east would prevent any return to harbour and the enemy had only to make the broad Atlantic to find ample sea-room to regain composure.
The mass of enemy ships passed them by quickly, disdaining to engage, and all too soon had disappeared into the wild night - but not before it was clear they were shaping course northward. Towards England.
'Bear a fist there, y' scowbunkin' lubbers!' The loud bellow startled the group around the forebitts who were amiably watching the sailors at the pin-rail swigging off on the topsail lift. The men moved quickly to obey: this was Thomas Kydd, the hard-horse master's mate whose hellish open-boat voyage in the Caribbean eighteen months ago was still talked about in the navy.
Kydd's eyes moved about the deck. It was his way never to go below at the end of a watch until all was neatly squared away, ready for those relieving, but there was little to criticise in these balmy breezes on the foredeck of the 64-gun ship-of-the-line Achilles as she crossed the broad Atlantic bound for Gibraltar.
Kydd was content — to be a master's mate after just four years before the mast was a rare achievement. It entitled him to walk the quarterdeck with the officers, to mess in the gunroom, and to wear a proper uniform complete with long coat and breeches. No one could mistake him now for a common sailor.
CockburnRoyal blue seas, with an occasional tumbling line of white, and towering fluffy clouds brilliant in southern sunshine: they were to enter the Mediterranean to join Admiral Jervis. It would be the first time Kydd had seen this fabled sea and he looked forward to sharing interesting times ashore with his particular friend, Nicholas Renzi, who was now a master's mate in Glorious.
His gaze shifted to her, a powerful 74-gun ship-of-the-line off to leeward. She was taking in her three topsails simultaneously, probably an officer-of-the-watch exercise, pitting the skills and audacity of one mast against another.
The last day or so they had been running down the latitude of thirty-six north, and Kydd knew they should raise Gibraltar that morning. He glanced forward in expectation. To the east there was a light dun-coloured band of haze lying on the horizon, obscuring the transition of sea into sky.
The small squadron began to assume a form of line. Kydd took his position on the quarterdeck, determined not to miss landfall on such an emblem of history. His glance flicked up to the fore masthead lookout — but this time the man snapped rigid, shading his eyes and looking right ahead. An instant later he leaned down and bawled, 'Laaaand ho!'
The master puffed his cheeks in pleasure. Kydd knew it was an easy enough approach, but news of the sighting of land was always a matter of great interest to a ship's company many weeks at sea, and the decks buzzed with comment.
Kydd waited impatiently, but soon it became visible from the decks, a delicate light blue-grey peak, just discernible over the haze. It firmed quickly to a hard blue and, as he watched, it spread. The ships sailed on in the fluky south-easterly, and as they approached, the aspect of the land changed subtly, the length of it beginning to foreshorten. The haze thinned and the land took on individuality.
'Gibraltar!' Kydd breathed. As they neared, the bulking shape grew, reared up far above their masthead with an effortless immensity. Like a crouching lion, it dominated by its mere presence, a majestic, never-to-be-forgotten symbol: the uttermost end of Europe, the finality of a continent.
He looked around; to the south lay Africa, an irregular blue-grey mass across a glittering sea — there, so close, was an endless desert and the Barbary pirates, then further south, jungle, elephants and pygmies.
Only two ships. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the sea, Emily Mulvany searched the horizon but could see no more. Admiral Jervis, with his fleet, was in Lisbon, giving heart to the Portuguese, and there were no men-o'-war of significance in Gibraltar. All were hoping for a substantial naval presence in these dreadful times . .. but she was a daughter of the army and knew nothing of sea strategy. Still, they looked lovely, all sails set like wings on a swan, a long pennant at the masthead of each swirling lazily, a picture of sea grace and beauty.
Flags rose to Glorious's signal halliards. They both altered course in a broad curve toward the far-off anonymous cluster of buildings half-way along at the water's edge. As they did so, the gentle breeze fluttered and died, picked up again, then dropped away to a whisper. Frustrated, Kydd saw why: even this far out they were in the lee of the great rock in the easterly; high on its summit a ragged scarf of cloud streamed out, darkening the bay beneath for a mile or more. He glanced at the master, who did not appear overly concerned, his arms folded in limitless patience. The captain disappeared below, leaving the deck to the watch. Sails flapped and rustled, slackened gear rattled and knocked, and the ship ghosted in at the pace of a crawling child.
Kydd took the measure of the gigantic rock. It lay almost exactl y north and south some two or three miles long, but was observably much narrower. There was a main town low along the flanks to seaward, but few other buildings on the precipitous sides. On its landward end the rock ended abrupdy, and Kydd could see the long flat terrain connecting the Rock of Gibraltar to the nondescript mainland.
It wasn't until evening that the frustrating easterly died and a local southerly enabled the two ships to come in with the land. Kydd knew from the charts that this would be Rosia Bay, the home of the navy in Gibraltar. It was a pretty litde inlet, well away from the main cluster of buildings further along. There was the usual elegant, spare stone architecture of a dockyard and, higher, an imposing two-storey building that, by its position, could only be the naval hospital.
Rosia Bay opened up, a small mole to the south, the ramparts of a past fortification clear to the north. There, the two ships dropped anchor.
'Do you see . . .'
Kydd had not noticed Cockburn appear beside him.
'Er, no - what is it y' sees, Tarn?' The neat, almost academic-looking man next to him was Achilles's other master's mate, a long-promoted midshipman who had yet to make the vital step of commission as a lieutenant, but had accepted his situation with philosophic resignation. He and Kydd had become friends.
'We're the only ones,' Cockburn said quietly. 'The fleet must be in the Med somewhere.' Apart from the sturdy sails of dockyard craft and a brig-sloop alongside the mole in a state of disrepair, there were only the exotic lateen sails of Levant traders dotting the sea around the calm of Gibraltar.
'Side!' The burly boatswain raised his silver call. The captain emerged from the cabin spaces, striding purposefully, all a-glitter with gold lace, medals and best sword. Respectfully, Kydd and Cockburn joined the line of sideboys at the ship's side. The boatswain raised his call again and as the captain went over the bulwark every man touched his hat and the shriek of the whistle pierced the evening.
The captain safely over the side, the first lieutenant remained at the salute for a moment, then turned to the boatswain. 'Stand down the watches. We're out of sea routine now, I believe.'
The boatswain's eyebrows raised in surprise. No strict orders to ready the ship for sea again, to store ship, to set right the ravages of their ocean voyage? They would evidently be here for a long time. 'An' liberty, sir?' he asked.
'Larbowlines until evening gun.' The first lieutenant's words were overheard by a dozen ears, sudden unseen scurries indicating the news was being joyfully spread below.
At the boatswain's uneasy frown, the lieutenant added, 'We're due a parcel of men from England, apparently. They can turn to and let our brave tars step off on a well-earned frolic, don't you think?' Kydd caught an edge of irony in the words, but didn't waste time on reflection. 'Been here before?' he asked Cockburn, who was taking in the long sprawl of buildings further along, the Moorish-looking castle at the other end — the sheer fascination of the mighty rock.
'Never, I fear,' said Cockburn, in his usual quiet way, as he gazed at the spectacle. 'But we'll make its acquaintance soon enough.'
Kydd noticed with surprise that Glorious, anchored no more than a hundred yards away, was in a state of intense activity. There were victualling hoys and low barges beetling out to the bigger ship-of-the-line, every sign of an outward-bound vessel.
The old-fashioned longboat carrying the senior hands ashore was good-natured about diverting, and soon they lay under oars off the side of the powerful man-o'-war, one of a multitude of busy craft.
'Glorious ahoy!' bawled Kydd. At the deck edge a distracted petty officer appeared and looked down into the boat. 'If ye c'n pass th' word f'r Mr Renzi, I'd be obliged,' Kydd hailed. The face disappeared and they waited.
The heat of the day had lessened, but it still drew forth the aromas of a ship long at sea — sun on tarry timbers, canvas and well-worn decks, an effluvia carrying from the open gunports that was as individual to that ship as the volute carvings at her bow, a compound of bilge, old stores, concentrated humanity and more subtle, unknown odours.
There was movement and a wooden squealing of sheaves, and the gunport lid next to them was triced up. 'Dear fellow!' Renzi leaned out, and the longboat eased closer.
Kydd's face broke into an unrestrained grin at the sight of the man with whom he had shared more of life's challenges and rewards than any other. 'Nicholas! Should y' wish t' step ashore—'
'Sadly, brother, I cannot.'
It was the same Renzi, the cool, sensitive gaze, the strength of character in the deep lines at each side of his mouth, but Kydd sensed something else, something unsettling.
'We are under sailing orders,' Renzi said quietly. The ship was preparing for sea; there could be no risk of men straggling and therefore no liberty. 'An alarum of sorts. We go to join Jervis, I believe.'
There was a stir of interest in the longboat. 'An' where's he at, then?' asked Coxall, gunner's mate and generally declared leader of their jaunt ashore - he was an old hand and had been to Gibraltar before.
Renzi stared levelly at the horizon, his remote expression causing Kydd further unease. 'It seems that there is some — confusion. I have not heard reliably just where the fleet might be.' He turned back to Kydd with a half-smile. 'But, then, these are troubling times, my friend, it can mean anything.'
A muffled roar inside the dark gundeck took Renzi's attention and he waved apologetically at Kydd before he shouted, 'We will meet on our return, dear fellow,' then withdrew inboard.
'Rum dos,' muttered Coxall, and glared at the duty boat's crew, lazily leaning into their strokes as the boat made its way round the larger mole to the end of the long wall of fortifications. He perked up as they headed towards the shore and a small jetty. 'Ragged Staff,' he said, his seamed face relaxing into a smile, 'where we gets our water afore we goes ter sea.'
They clambered out. Like the others Kydd revelled in the solidity of the ground after weeks at sea: the earth was curiously submissive under his feet without the exuberant liveliness of a ship in concord with the sea. Coxall struck out for the large arched gate in the wall and the group followed.
The town quickly engulfed them, and with it the colour and sensory richness of the huge sunbaked rock. The passing citizenry were as variegated in appearance as any that Kydd had seen: here was a true crossing place of the world, a nexus for the waves of races, European, Arab, Spanish and others from deeper into this inland sea.
And the smells — in the narrow streets innumerable mules and donkeys passed by laden with their burdens, the pungency of their droppings competing with the offerings of the shops: smoked herring and dried cod, the cool bacon aroma of salted pigs' trotters and the heady fragrance of cinnamon, cloves, roasting coffee, each adding in the hot dustiness to the interweaving reek.
In only a few minutes they had crossed two streets and were up against the steep rise of the flank of the Rock. Coxall didn't spare them, leading them through the massive Southport gate and on a narrow track up and around the scrubby slopes to a building set on an angled rise. A sudden cool downward draught sent Kydd's jacket aflare and his hat skittering in the dust.
'Scud Hill. We gets ter sink a muzzier 'ere first, wi'out we has t' smell the town,' Coxall said. It was a pot-house, but not of a kind that Kydd had seen before. Loosely modelled on an English tavern, it was more open balcony than interior darkness, and rather than high-backed benches there were individual tables with cane chairs.
'A shant o' gatter is jus' what'll set me up prime, like,' sighed the lean and careful Tippett, carpenter's mate and Coxall's inseparable companion. They eased into chairs, orienting them to look out over the water, then carefully placed their hats beneath. They were just above Rosia Bay, their two ships neatly at anchor within its arms, while further down there was a fine vista of the length of the town, all cosy within long lines of fortifications.
The ale was not long in coming - this establishment was geared for a fleet in port, and in its absence they were virtually on their own, with only one other table occupied.
'Here's ter us, lads!' Coxall declared, and upended his pewter. It was grateful to the senses on the wide balcony, the wind at this height strong and cool, yet the soft warmth of the winter sun gave a welcome laziness to the late afternoon.
Coins were produced for the next round, but Cockburn held up his hand. 'I'll round in m' tackle for now.' The old 64-gun Achilles had not had one prize to her name in her two years in the Caribbean, while Seaflower cutter had been lucky.
Kydd considered how he could see his friend clear to another without it appearing charity, but before he could say anything, Coxall grunted: 'Well, damme, only a Spanish cobb ter me name. Seems yer in luck, yer Scotch shicer, can't let 'em keep m' change.'
Cockburn's set face held, then loosened to a smile. 'Why, thankee, Eli.'
Kydd looked comfortably across his tankard over the steep, sunlit slopes towards the landward end of Gibraltar. The town nesded in a narrow line below, stretching about a mile to where it ceased abrupdy at the end of the Rock. The rest of the terrain was bare scrub on precipitous sides. 'So this is y'r Gibraltar,' he said. 'Seems t' me just a mile long an' a half straight up.'
'Aye, but it's rare val'ble to us — Spanish tried ter take it orf us a dozen years or so back, kept at it fer four years, pounded th' place ter pieces they did,' Coxall replied, 'but we held on b' makin' this one thunderin' great fortress.'
'So while we have the place, no one else can,' Cockburn mused. 'And we come and go as we please, but denying passage to the enemy. Here's to the flag of old England on the Rock for ever.'
A murmur of appreciation as they drank was interrupted by the scraping of a chair and a pleasant-faced but tough-looking seaman came across to join them. 'Samuel Jones, yeoman outa Loyalty brig.'
Tippett motioned at their table, 'We're Achilles sixty-four, only this day inward-bound fr'm the Caribbee.'
'Saw yez. So ye hasn't the word what's been 'n' happened this side o' the ocean all of a sudden, like.' At the expectant silence he went on, 'As ye knows - yer do? — the Spanish came in wi' the Frogs in October, an' since then ...'
Kydd nodded. But his eyes strayed to the point where Gibraltar ended so abruptly: there was Spain, the enemy, just a mile or so beyond — and always there.
Relishing his moment, Jones asked, 'So where's yer Admiral Jervis an' his fleet, then?'
Coxall started to say something, but Jones cut in, 'No, mate, he's at Lisbon, is he — out there.' He gestured to the west and the open Atlantic. Leaning forward he pointed in the other direction, into the Mediterranean. 'Since December, last month, we had to skin out - can't hold on. So, mates, there ain't a single English man-o'-war as swims in the whole Mediterranee.'
Into the grave silence came Coxall's troubled voice. 'Yer means Port Mahon, Leghorn, Naples—'
'We left 'em all t' the French, cully. I tell yer, there's no English guns any further in than us.'
Kydd stared at the table. Evacuation of the Mediterranean? It was inconceivable! The great trade route opened up to the Orient following the loss of the American colonies - the journeys to the Levant, Egypt and the fabled camel trains to the Red Sea and India, all finished?
'But don't let that worry yez,' Jones continued.
'And pray why not?' said Cockburn carefully.
"Cos there's worse,'Jones said softly. The others held still. 'Not more'n a coupla weeks ago, we gets word fr'm the north, the inshore frigates off Brest.' He paused. 'The French — they're out!' There was a stirring around the table.
'Not yer usual, not at all— this is big, forty sail an' more, seventeen o' the line an' transports, as would be carryin' soldiers an' horses an' all.'
He sought out their faces, one by one. 'It's a right filthy easterly gale, Colpoys out of it somewhere t' sea, nothin' ter stop 'em. Last seen, they hauls their wind fer the north — England, lads . ..'
'They're leaving!'. The upstairs maid's excited squeal brought an automatic reproof from Emily, but she hurried nevertheless to the window. White sail blossomed from the largest, which was the Glorious, she had found out. The smaller Achilles, however, showed no signs of moving and lay quietly to her anchor. Emily frowned at this development. With no children to occupy her days, and a husband who worked long hours, she had thrown herself into the social round of Gibraltar. There was to be an assembly soon, and she had had her hopes of the younger ship's officers — if she could snare a brace, they would serve handsomely to squire the tiresome Elliott sisters.
Then she remembered: it was Letitia who had discovered that in Achilles was the man who had famously rescued Lord Stanhope in a thrilling open-boat voyage after a dreadful hurricane. She racked her brain. Yes, Captain Kydd. She would make sure somehow that he was on the guest list.
The next forenoon the new men came aboard, a dismal shuffle in the Mediterranean sun. They had been landed from the stores transport from England, and their trip across wartime Biscay would not have been pleasant. Kydd, as mate-of-the-watch, took a grubby paper from the well-seasoned warrant officer and signed for them. He told the wide-eyed duty midshipman to take them below on the first stage of their absorption into the ship's company of Achilles and watched them stumble down the main-hatch. Despite the stout clothing they had been given in the receiving ship in England, they were a dejected and repellent-looking crew.
The warrant officer showed no inclination to leave, and came to stand beside Kydd. 'No rowguard, then?'
'Is this Spithead?' Kydd retorted. Any half-awake sailor would see that it was futile to get ashore - the only way out of Gibraltar was in a merchant ship, and they were all under eye not two hundred yards off at the New Mole.
The warrant officer looked at him with a cynical smile. 'How long you been outa England?'
'West Indies f'r the last coupla years,' Kydd said guardedly.
The man's grunt was dismissive. 'Then chalk this in yer log. Times 'r changin', cully, the navy ain't what it was. These 'ere are the best youse are goin' to get, but not a seaman among 'em . . .' He let the words hang: by law the press-gang could only seize men who 'used the sea'.
He went on: 'Ever hear o' yer Lord Mayor's men? No?' He chuckled harshly. 'By Act o' Parlyment, every borough has to send in men, what's their quota, like, no choice — so who they goin' to send? Good 'uns or what?' He went to the side and spat into the harbour. 'No, o' course. They gets rid o' their low shabs, skulkers 'n' dandy prats. Even bales out th' gaol. An' then the navy gets 'em.'
There seemed no sense in it. The press-gang, however iniquitous, had provided good hands in the past, even in the Caribbean. Why not now? As if in answer, the man went on, 'Press is not bringin' 'em in any more, we got too many ships wantin' crew.' He looked sideways at Kydd, and his face darkened. 'But this'n! You'll find—'
Muffled, angry shouts came up from below. The young lieutenant-of-the-watch came forward, frowning at the untoward commotion. 'Mr Kydd, see what the fuss is about, if you please.'
Fisticuffs on the gundeck. It was shortly after the noon grog issue, and it was not unknown for men who had somehow got hold of extra drink to run riotous, but unusually this time one of them was Boddy, an able seaman known for his steady reliability out on a yardarm. Kydd did not recognise the other man. Surrounded by sullen sailors, the two were locked in a vicious clinch in the low confines below decks. This was not a simple case of tempers flaring.
'Still!' Kydd roared. The shouts and murmuring died, but the pair continued to grapple, panting in ragged grunts. Kydd himself could not separate them: if a wild blow landed on him, the culprit would face a noose for striking a superior.
A quarter-gunner reached them from aft and, without breaking stride, sliced his fist down between the two. They fell apart, glaring and bloody. The petty officer looked enquiringly at Kydd.
His duty was plain, the pair should be haled to the quarterdeck for punishment, but Kydd felt that his higher duty was to find the cause. 'Will, you old haul-bowlings,' he said loudly to Boddy, his words carrying to the others, 'slinging y' mauley in 'tween decks, it's not like you.'
Kydd considered the other man. He had a disquieting habit of inclining his head one way, but sliding his eyes in a different direction; a careful, appraising look so different from the open honesty of a sailor.
'Caught th' prigger firkling me ditty-bag,' Boddy said thickly. 'I'll knock his fuckin' toplights out, the—'
'Clap a stopper on it,' Kydd snapped. It was provocation enough: the ditty-bag was where seamen hung their ready-use articles on the ship's side, a small bag with a hole half-way up for convenience. There would be nothing of real value in it, so why—
'I didn't know what it was, in truth.' The man's careful words were cool, out of place in a man-o'-war.
Boddy recoiled. 'Don't try 'n' flam me, yer shoreside shyster,' he snarled.
It might be possible — these quota men would know nothing of sea life from their short time in the receiving ship in harbour and the stores transport, and be curious about their new quarters. Either way, Kydd realised, there was going to be a hard beat to windward to absorb the likes of these into the seamanlike ship's company that the Achilles had become after her Atlantic passage.
'Stow it,' he growled at Boddy. 'These grass-combin' buggers have a lot t' learn. Now, ye either lives wi' it or y' bears up f'r the quarterdeck. Yeah?'
Boddy glared for a moment then folded his arms. 'Yair, well, he shifts his berth fr'm this mess on any account.'
Kydd agreed. It was a seaman's ancient privilege to choose his messmates; he would square it later. There was no need to invoke the formality of ship's discipline for this. He looked meaningfully at the petty officer and returned on deck.
The warrant officer had not left, and after Kydd had reassured the lieutenant-of-the-watch he came across with a knowing swagger. 'Jus' makin' the acquaintance of yer Lord Mayor's men, mate?' Kydd glanced at him coldly. 'On yer books as volunteers — and that means each one of 'em gets seventy pound bounty, spend how they likes . ..'
'Seventy pounds!' The pay for a good able seaman was less than a shilling a day — this was four years' pay for a good man. A pressed man got nothing, yet these riff-raff ... Kydd's face tightened. 'I'll see y' over the side,' he told the warrant officer gruffly.
At noon Kydd was relieved by Cockburn. The bungling political solution to the manning problem was lowering on the spirit. And Gibraltar was apparendy just a garrison town, one big fortified rock and that was all. England was in great peril, and he was doing little more than keeping house in an old, well-worn ship at her long-term moorings.
Kydd didn't feel like going ashore in this mood, but to stay on board was not an attractive proposition, given the discontents simmering below. Perhaps he would take another walk round town: it was an interesting enough place, all things considered.
Satisfied with his appearance, the blue coat of a master's mate with its big buttons, white breeches and waistcoat with cockaded plain black hat, he joined the group at the gangway waiting for their boat ashore. The first lieutenant came up the main-hatch ladder, but he held his hat at his side, the sign that he was off-duty.
'Are you passing through the town?' he asked Kydd pleasantly.
Kydd touched his hat politely. 'Aye, sir.'
"Then I'd be much obliged if you could leave these two books at the garrison library,' he said, and handed over a small parcel.
Kydd established that the library was situated in Main Street, apparently opposite a convent. It didn't take long to find — Main Street was the central way through the town, and the convent was pointed out to him half-way along its length. To his surprise, it apparently rated a full complement of sentries in ceremonials. There was a giant Union Flag floating haughtily above the building and a sergeant glared at him from the portico. Across the road, as directed, was the garrison library, an unpretentious single building.
It was a quiet morning, and Emily looked around for things to do. On her mind was her planned social event, as always a problem with a never-changing pool of guests. Her brow furrowed at the question of what she would wear. Despite the tropical climate of Gibraltar, she had retained her soft, milky complexion, and at thirty-two, Emily was in the prime of her beauty.
There was a diffident tap on the door. She crossed to her desk to take position and signalled to the diminutive Maltese helper.
It was a navy man; an officer of some kind with an engagingly shy manner that in no way detracted from his good looks. He carried a small parcel.
'Er, can ye tell me, is this th' garrison library, miss?' She didn't recognise him: he must be from the remaining big ship.
'It is,' she said primly. A librarian, however amateur, had standards to uphold.
His hat was neatly under his arm, and he proffered the parcel as though it was precious. "The first l'tenant of Achilles asked me t' return these books,' he said, with a curious mix of sturdy simplicity and a certain nobility of purpose.
'Thank you, it was kind in you to bring them.' She paused, taking in the fine figure he made in his sea uniform; probably in his mid-twenties and, from the strength in his features, she guessed he had seen much of the world.
'Achilles — from the Caribbean? Then you would know Mr Kydd - the famous one who rescued Lord Stanhope and sailed so far in a tiny open boat, with his maid in with them as well.'
The young man frowned and hesitated, but his dark eyes held a glint of humour. 'Aye, I do — but it was never th' maid, it was Lady Stanhope's travellin' companion.' His glossy dark hair was gathered and pulled back in a clubbed pigtail, and couldn't have been more different from the short, powdered wigs of an army officer.
'You may think me awfully forward, but it would greatly oblige if you could introduce me to him,' she dared.
With a shy smile, he said, 'Yes, miss. Then might I present m'self? Thomas Kydd, master's mate o' the Achilles'
It had been an agreeable day, Kydd decided. Cockburn had joined him later and they had wandered along the busy back-streets, sampling exotic fruit and fending off importunate gewgaw sellers. They returned on board and Kydd opted to stay on deck, knowing that Cockburn would want to get out his quill and paper to scratch away, his particular solace.
The evening had turned into night, and Kydd stood at the mizzen shrouds. Yellow lights twinkled in the darkness, faint sounds of the land floated across the water: a donkey's bray, an anonymous regular tap of a hammer, the ceaseless susurration of activity.
Possibly their indefinite stay in Gibraltar would not be wholly unpleasant, he reflected. Then he recalled the dire news of the invasion fleet and that Renzi, in Glorious was on his way to join in a titanic battle for the very life of England, while his own ship was left here as a poor token of English power.
Logically he knew that helpless worry was of no use Cockburn to his country, and he tried resolutely to turn his mind to other things. The ship: as soon as they took delivery of a spar, they would re-sling the cro'jack yard across the mizzen-mast, and he would then make his plea for a double cleat truss, for this would conveniently also act as a rolling tackle.
His thoughts returned to the present. Here he was, a master's mate, a warrant officer. It was something he couldn't have dreamed of being in years past; it was the pinnacle of achievement for a common sailor to have a crackling Admiralty Warrant in his sea-chest. While he wasn't a real officer — they held a commission from King George — as a master's mate he was held in real respect aboard. He messed with the midshipmen it was true, but he was senior to them and could curb their schoolboy antics as he felt inclined. At the same time, he was squarely part of the ship's company — a seaman and a professional. His social horizons were theirs, but he was at the top and owed no one before-the mast except the master any deference; he could look forward to long service at this comfortable eminence.
Yet there was one aspect of this existence that was a continuing source of regret. Nicholas Renzi had not only shared his adventurous and perilous sea life, but had opened so much to him that was deep and true, and from him he had learned the habits of reason and principle in many a companionable night watch. He remembered the passionate discussions in the South Seas over the precepts of Rousseau, the intensity of Renzi's convictions informed by Locke and Diderot -all worthy of an enlightened mind. And Renzi's effortless acquaintance with the beauty and art of words, which touched a part of the soul that nothing else could.
But Renzi was now also a master's mate; even a sail-of-the-line would only have one or two. This made it unlikely that they would ever again serve together.
His eyes cast down to the dark water. At least up to now they had been on the same station and could occasionally visit. They had divided their stock of books in Barbados, now long-since read, but to exchange them he must wait until they met again ...
Moody and depressed he was on the point of going below when he thought of the garrison library. Perhaps the kind lady in charge would understand and allow him a volume or two; then he would apply himself and later astonish Renzi with a morsel of philosophy, or an arcane and wonderfully curious piece of natural science. He brightened.
Emily was cross with herself. Mr Kydd had come to her, and she had ended up tongue-tied, like a silly girl, letting him walk away. And this morning she would have to face the odious Mr Goldstein again to inform him that the committee did not see fit in this instance to contravene their inviolable rule that tradesmen, however eminent, were not eligible to join the library.
She fussed a row of learned journals into line, then heard a diffident knock. Brushing aside the Maltese helper, she strode rapidly to the door and opened it with a sweet smile. 'Why, Mr Kydd!' He was just as she recalled, the same shy smile. Emily inclined her head gracefully: she would not be discommoded this time.
'Er, I was wonderin', miss, if there's any chance I might borrow a book 'r two?'
His eyes were so open and guileless - if he had seen much, it wasn't in salons or drawing rooms. 'Mr Kydd,' she said coolly, 'this library was created after the Great Siege by the officers of the garrison who did not want to endure such another without they had food for the intellect. This is their library by contribution.'
Kydd's face fell. Emily suppressed a smile: he was so adorably transparent.
'Naval officers have nobly contributed as they can,' she continued, 'and the committee have therefore declared them equally eligible for borrowing privileges.' She picked up a book and pretended to scrutinise its pages.
Kydd didn't respond, and when she looked up, she was surprised to see rueful resignation. 'Then I'm brought up wi' a round turn — I'm a master's mate only.' At her puzzled look he added, 'A warrant officer.'
Her face cleared. 'We don't care what kind of officer you are, Mr Kydd. You may certainly join our library.'
Kydd's smile returned and Emily responded warmly. 'Now, let me see, what do we have that will interest you .. .'
It was a nice problem: there were officers who earnestly sought educational tomes, others who reserved their enthusiasm for accounts of the wilder excesses of the fall of Rome, yet more who would relentlessly devour anything on offer. Kydd did not seem to fit any of these.
'May I suggest the Gabinetti, Customs and Cultural History of the Iberians'? It might prove interesting for someone come to this part of the world.'
Kydd hesitated. 'Er, I was thinkin' more ye might have one b' Mr Hume — I have a yen t' know more about what he says on causality.' Mistaking her look, he hurried to add,' Y' see, I have a frien' who is more in th' metaphysical line, an' will much want t' dispute empiricism wi' me,' he finished lamely.
'Oh,' Emily said. 'We don't get much call for that kind of thing, Mr Kydd, but I'll do what I can.' There was a dark old leather volume she remembered behind the desk by Hume, but she hadn't the faintest idea what it contained.
'Ah, here you are,' she said brightly, 'David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding'
Kydd took the litde book and leafed through it reverently. His hands were very strong, she noticed. 'This will do, thank ye, miss,' he said.
'Splendid!' Emily said, with relief. 'And it's Mrs Emily Mulvany,' she added.
Kydd gravely acknowledged her, his old-fashioned courtesies charming. At the door he turned to bid her farewell. 'Oh, Mr Kydd, I may have omitted to let you know, we are holding an assembly and you are to be invited, I believe,' she said, as off-handedly as she could manage. 'I am sure you will find it congenial after your long voyaging.' It would be a fine thing to display such a prize — and so interesting a man. Emily's thoughts were bubbling: Gibraltar was small and unchanging and she'd never met someone like Mr Kydd before. Imagine — discussing philosophy with his friend under the stars, yet ready at a moment's notice to engage the enemy in some dreadful battle. And his great feat in rescuing the diplomat in a tiny boat on the open sea. He'd certainly led a much more exciting and romantic life than a soldier. She watched him depart. A man's man, he was probably restless, hemmed in by the daily round of the Rock. It would be an interesting challenge to keep boredom at bay for him ...
The invitation came the following morning, a plainly worded card, beautifully penned in a feminine hand and addressed to 'Mr Kydd, on board HMS Achilles'. It was the first social invitation he had ever had, and he fingered the expensive board with both pleasure and surprise. Mrs Mulvany was obviously of the quality and he'd thought that she was just being polite when she mentioned the assembly.
An assembly, he knew from a single previous experience in Guildford, was a fairly informal social gathering — but then he remembered that it involved dancing ...
'M' friend,' he said to Cockburn, after showing him the invitation, 'do ye help me, I must refuse. I'm no taut hand at th' dancing, an' I'll shame the ship. C'n ye give me some rousin' good reason I cannot attend, or—'
Thomas, you must attend,' Cockburn said, his face shadowed at this familiar token of polite society he was most unlikely to see himself. 'An absence would bring dishonour on both you and the service!'
'But I can't dance, I never learned,' Kydd said, in anguish. He would far rather face an enemy broadside than make a fool of himself before tittering ladies.
'Ah.' Cockburn had grown up with the attentions of a dancing-master and had no apprehension himself of the dance floor, in fact he rather enjoyed the decorous interplay of femininity on gentlemanly ardour.
'My folks were never much in th' social line’ Kydd said forlornly.
'Then I shall be your teacher!' Cockburn declared impulsively.
‘Wha— No!' Kydd blurted. A moment's fantasy flashed by of Emily's slim figure bobbing in delight at his dancing skills, her attractive ringlets springing out in the mad whirl, a blush on her cheeks as . .. 'Could ye? I don't—'
'Of course. It's, er, it's rather like your redcoats doing their drill, and they learn it easy enough.'
The dog-watch saw them both repair down to the dim cockpit on the orlop, the area outside the surgeon's cabin, the purser's and the midshipman's berth.
Cockburn looked around warily, then addressed himself to Kydd. 'In the matter of a cotillion, it is of the first importance to place the feet so ...' he said, as he gracefully adopted the pose. Kydd did so, looking down doubtfully. 'You look at the lady, not your feet — is she not to your liking, sir?'
Kydd's head lifted, and he strained to be graceful. A muffled splutter came from the shadows and he wheeled round. 'Clap a stopper on y'r cacklin', damn y'r whistle,' he snarled, 'or ye'll be spending y'r dog-watches in the tops!' A midshipman slunk back into the shadows.
Cockburn persevered. The gloom and thick odour of the orlop did nothing to convey a ballroom atmosphere, and there were ringbolts on the deck, here above the main hold. 'The measure is stepped like this — one, two, three and a stand, and a one, two, three and a four ...'
The surgeon's cabin door opened noiselessly, and Cockburn was aware of muffled footfalls from forward, an appreciative audience gathering in the shadows. 'No, Tom, you've forgotten the "four" again,' he said, with some control, for Kydd had tripped and sent him staggering. His pupil had a memory as short as ... 'It won't answer, not at all,' he said to the crestfallen Kydd. He muttered under his breath, then had an idea. 'Please to pay attention -1 will now make this clear enough for the meanest intelligence.' Kydd looked at him resentfully.
'Er, the first is to make sail, then we haul our wind to the starb'd tack, and wear about before we drops anchor to boxhaul around, like this.' The relief on Kydd's face was plain. "Then we tack about twice against the sun and heave to for a space, let the lady get clear of our hawse, and we are under way again, this time to larb'd . ..'
'Shouldn't be more'n a half-hour,' the lieutenant said, through his towel, finishing his personal preparations for a rendezvous ashore. 'Lobsterbacks like marchin' around, up 'n' down, that sort of thing, then they flog the poor wight an' it's back to barracks.'
'Aye, sir,' Kydd said, without enthusiasm. He had agreed to take the lieutenant's place in an army punishment parade to represent Achilles as a major ship in the port.
'Mos' grateful, Mr Kydd. As long as you're at the Alameda by five bells ...'
Kydd clapped on a black cockaded hat, and settled a cross-belt with its distinctive anchor shoulder plate over his white waistcoat. The rather worn spadroon sword he had borrowed from Cockburn was awkward in the scabbard; it was so much longer and daintier than a sturdy cutlass. A glance reassured him that his shoes were well shined - the gunroom servant needed coaxing of a sort but was a knowing old marine.
With two marines as escort stepping out smartly ahead, Kydd found his way to the Alameda, and halted the marines.
The Alameda was a remarkably large parade-ground that would not be out of place in the bigger army establishments in England. It was alive with ranks of marching soldiers, hoarse screams sending them back and forth. Splendidly kitted sergeant-majors glared down the dressing of the lines and bawled in outrage at the hapless redcoats. The discordant blare of trumpets and the clash and stamp of drill added to the cacophony, and from the edge of the arena Kydd watched in wonder for what he should do.
A sashed, ramrod-stiff figure with a tall shako detached himself from the melee and marched up, coming to a crashing halt before Kydd. His eyes flickered at Kydd's polite doffing of his hat and strayed to the marines motionless behind him.
'Sah! With me. Sah!' He wheeled about abrupdy and marched energetically across to a ragged square of men across the parade; Kydd saw with relief that a few were in navy rig.
'An' what happens next?' Kydd asked a weathered marine lieutenant. The other navy representatives nodded cautiously or ignored him in accordance with rank.
The man's bored eyes slid over to him. 'They brings out the prisoner, the town major rants at 'im, trices him up t' the whipping post, lays on the lashes, an' we goes home.' The eyes slid back to the front in a practised glassy stare.
Kydd saw the whipping post set out from the wall they were facing, an unremarkable thick pole with a small platform. He had grown inured to the display of physical punishment at sea, seeing the need for it without a better solution, but it always caused him regret. He hoped this would not take long.
The parade sorted itself into a hollow square behind them. Within minutes a small column of men appeared from the further side of the parade-ground. They were accompanied by a drummer with muffled drum, the slow ta-rrum, ta-rrum of the Rogue's March hanging heavy on the air.
The prisoner was a blank-faced, scrawny soldier without his shako. The column halted and turned to face the post. From the opposite corner of the parade-ground, a small party appeared, led by a short, florid officer strutting along bolt upright.
'Actin' town major,' murmured the marine.
The peppery army officer looked about testily, ignoring the prisoner. Slapping his gloves against his side irritably, he stepped over to the assembled representatives. 'Fine day, ge'men,' he rasped, his flinty eyes merciless. 'Kind in ye to come.'
The eyes settled on Kydd, and he approached to speak. 'Don' recollect I've made the acquaintance?' The tautness of his bearing had a dangerous edge.
'Thomas Kydd, master's mate o' Achilles, sir.'
The eyes appraised him for a moment, then unexpectedly the man smiled. 'Glad t' see your ship here, Mr Kydd - uncertain times, what?' Before Kydd could speak, he had stalked off.
The essence of the business was much as the marine had said: the town major tore at the prisoner's dignity with practised savagery, the hard roar clearly meant for the parade as a whole. The offence was the breaking into of an army storeroom while drunk.
Stepping aside contemptuously, he ordered the anonymous brawny soldier with the lash to do his work. It was a lengthy and pitiful spectacle - the army had different ideas of punishment and, although delivered with a lash that was lighter-looking than a navy cat-o'-nine-tails the blows went on and on, thirty, forty and finally fifty.
At the conclusion, in a flurry of salutes, the attendant officers were dismissed. Kydd avoided the sight of the wretched victim still tied to the whipping post and declined the invitation to a noon-day snifter. He wanted to get back aboard to sanity.
'Ah, you there — Jack Tar ahoy, is it?' A resplendent sergeant-major, tall and with four golden stripes, was heading rapidly towards him. 'Me boy!' the soldier bawled. He came closer, his smile wide. 'A long time!'
Soldiers leaving the parade-ground went respectfully around them while Kydd stared and tried to remember the man.
'Why, it's Sar'nt Hotham, if m' memory serves!' The desperate times on Guadeloupe came back vividly.
'Not any more, it ain't,' Hotham boomed, the effortless authority of his voice still the same. 'Colour Sar'-Major Hotham will do fer you, m'lad.' His happy satisfaction turned to curiosity. 'An' what're you now, then?'
'Master's mate Tom Kydd, it is now.' His hand went out and was strongly gripped. 'Thought you wuz dead, Tom,' Hotham said, more quietly.
'No, got t' the other fort on the west, got taken off b' Trajan’ he said.
He hesitated, and Hotham picked up on it. Td admire ter have yer as me guest in the barracks fer a drink or so. Then we c'n take a look at th' fortress, if yez got the time.'
Line wall and bastions, counterguard and casemates, innumerable heavy gun positions and watchful sentries everywhere. Gibraltar was nothing if not a mighty fortress. The garrison even had its barracks, Town Range, in the centre of the town, which was itself behind massive walls and ramparts.
'We gets a ride on th' ration wagon, you'll see somethin'll make ye stare.' Hotham flagged down the small cart pulled by mules. They sat together on the back, legs dangling, and the cart wound slowly up a steep zigzag track.
The view rapidly expanded, an immense panorama of misty coast, dusty plains and sea. Kydd was fascinated.
The cart stopped at a gate, which was neatly set round a large hole in the side of the Rock. Hotham dropped to the ground briskly and, nodding to the curious sentry, motioned Kydd inside.
Coolness, a slight damp and the peculiar odour of unmoving air on old stone enfolded him as they strode into the bowels of the Rock of Gibraltar.
'Watch yer bonce,' Hotham warned, his own tall frame stooped, but Kydd was used to the low deckhead of a man-o'-war. The tunnel drove on, then widened, and suddenly to the left there was a gallery with bay after bay, and in each a twenty-four-pounder gun facing out of an aperture in the rock. The gaUery was bright with daylight, and a cheerful breeze played inwards.
'See 'ere, cully,' said Hotham, edging towards the opening on one side of the first gun. Kydd stared out at a dizzying height from the sheer face of the north aspect of the Rock. Far below was a flat plain that issued from the base, curving around until some miles further on it dissolved into mainland.
'Spain, cully!' Hotham declared, waving outwards.
'Where?' These guns could fire far, but not to the hills.
Hotham grinned. 'There!' He pointed directly down to the flat plain. No man's land, and only some half a mile away. So close — an enemy in arms against Britain, continuously ready to fall upon them if there was the slightest chance. Kydd tried to make out movement, figures on the hostile side of the lines, but to his disappointment could not.
'We got a hunnerd 'n' forty like this'n,' Hotham said, patting the twenty-four-pounder, 'an' thirty-twos, coehorns, even our own rock mortars. Nothin' ter fear, really, we ain't.' Kydd wondered what it must be like to look up at the sheer heights of the Rock, knowing the fire-power that could be brought down on any with the temerity to test the impregnability of Gibraltar.
Kydd was no more than half-way returned to his ship when he heard the first gun, a low crump, from somewhere above him. He craned to look, scanning the skyline, but there was only dissipating smoke. Suddenly, below him, there came the heavier thud of an answering gun. Kydd hurried on. Within minutes there were signs of agitation, shopkeepers emerging to look about nervously, water-carriers halting their donkeys in confusion. A young seaman acknowledged Kydd, just as the measured thump of a minute gun started from somewhere in the harbour. Guns opened up in other parts of the Rock and the sudden soaring of a rocket from below was quickly followed by others.
Achilles, It could be nothing less than an urgent general recall. Kydd had to make it back: there was peril abroad and his deepest instincts were with his ship. At the Ragged Staff gate there was a scrimmage for boats; Kydd and others quickly packed into the launch. Bedlam erupted all along the Rock — guns, church bells, shouting and confusion.
'What's th' rout, then?' one sailor demanded.
'Spanish. Sighted t' the east, mebbe a dozen or more sail-o'-the-line, comin' on like good 'uns an' straight for us!'
The Spanish Mediterranean battle fleet was usually skulking far away in Cartagena but they had heard of the English evacuation of the Mediterranean and knew Gibraltar was at the moment defended only by an old 64, a handful of unrated ships and local craft. Were they now going to take revenge for nearly a century of humiliation — and finally liberate the Rock?
Achilles was frantic with activity: she couldn't go to quarters until sail had been bent to the yards as she was still in refit. But a single ship? The enemy fleet would now be in sight from the point, a sinister straggling of tiny sail spreading over half of the eastern horizon.
Kydd's battle quarters was on the main gundeck, but for now he was at the foremast, frantically driving men to send up the long sausages of sails to seamen on the yard. The new hands, landmen all, were pale and frightened at the prospect of battle and needed hard pressing. Kydd grew hoarse with goading. 'Haaands to unmoor ship!'
The boatswain's mates pealed out their calls, but Kydd knew they had two anchors out, which would take time to buoy and slip — it was a race against time.
From his station at the catheads, Kydd kept an eye on the point: the eastern side of Gibraltar was sheer and inaccessible, and any invading force must come round to this side, sweeping aside with concentrated cannon fire the single ship of significance before beginning their landing.
First one or two then a dismaying cloud of heavy men-o'-war appeared from beyond the point, keeping well out of range, however, of the guns perched high up on the Rock. Kydd's heart beat fast. The last cable-buoy splashed into the water: they were now free to sail out to meet the enemy.
The ship cast to larboard and, under all plain sail, stood out from the harbour. The urgent thundering of the drum to quarters sounded, and Kydd snatched a last look at their opponents, then closed up on the main deck, briefly regretting having to face the battle in his best rig. Gun-crews with unskilled landmen, shot not brought up to the garlands from the lockers, gunner's party sewing cartridges like madmen: it was the worst conceivable timing for a Spanish descent, with Admiral Jervis and the fleet far in the north, but Kydd accepted that the sacrifice of their ship had to be made. They could not stand aside meekly and allow Gibraltar to fall.
'They've hauled their wind!' the voice of the forward midshipman shrilled, withdrawing from a gunport. 'Headin' north!'
Kydd brushed a gun-crew aside and peered out. The Spanish had not completed the turn into the Bay of Gibraltar: they had simply braced up and headed north, past - and away. After the urgent recall to his ship, Kydd felt a sense of frustration. But then the lieutenant of the gundeck, staring hard at the enemy ships, said coldly, 'They're making for Cadiz. Together they will outnumber even Jervis, heaven help us!'
The cro'jack was got up into the mizzen very satisfactorily. Kydd's party in the tops took care of the chain sling and, his suggestion being adopted, additional cleats were secured out on the yard through which the truss-pendants could be led to their own thimbles. By this neat solution, the wicked swing of the cro'jack in any kind of beam sea would be effectively damped without the need for rolling tackles from the deck.
Idly he watched his seamen passing the rose-lashing, which fixed in place the cushioning dolphin underneath the spar, and relished a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. He had personal experience enough of fine seamanship as a life-preserving imperative never to take the short path.
Cockburn dismissed the deck party and waited for Kydd to descend the shrouds. 'Tell me, in what character will you be attending your assembly?'
Taken aback, Kydd hesitated. 'I should—'
'You will have noticed "'masquerade" on the invitation, of course.'
'But ...' Kydd had no idea of the oddities of polite society, and could only wait for the elucidation that Cockburn was clearly looking to provide.
'This means that your assembly is in the nature of a fancy-dress, I fear.'
'I -1—' Kydd struggled for words.
Four days later, at three bells in the first dog-watch, Mr Kydd and Mr Cockburn were logged as stepping ashore. What was not noted was the capacious sea-bag carried by Mr Kydd, and the haste with which they hurried to a small taphouse in King's Yard Lane.
Minutes after, at a side entrance, the astonishing sight of King Neptune emerged furtively, holding his crown and trident self-consciously, but looking a striking picture with his muscular torso exposed.
'Best o' luck!' Cockburn chuckled, Kydd's sea-going rig safely in the bag.
'Be damn'd!' Kydd growled, but an impish delight was building in him.
The first measures of the dance were as fearsome a trial as bringing in topsails under the eye of the admiral, but the same skills that made Kydd a fine seaman out on a yard came to his rescue and he stepped out the rest of the dance with increasing confidence.
His partners, an improbable wood-nymph, a well-nourished Britannia, a shy young swan and a stout milkmaid, all enjoyed dancing with Neptune. The candlelight did well for Kydd's sea-darkened complexion, and he attracted many thoughtful female glances.
He dared a look round the long room: great chandeliers cast a golden light that picked out the sparkles of ladies' jewellery and gentlemen's quizzing glasses. The smell of candles and perspiration was swamped in a generous cloud of fragrances, but there was an unmistakable air of living for the moment. With a stab, Kydd remembered the grave threats out in the wider world that might bring all of this to an end.
Uneasily aware that he could be thought a trespasser socially if the gentlemen around him knew his status, he held firmly to the fact that he had been personally invited. And in the happy chatter around him he could perceive that there were others who in England's polite society could not expect an invitation to such an evening as this. How kind of Emily to invite him. She was a striking woman: tall, self-possessed, she had the disturbing trick of letting her voice change to a low purr in the intimacy of a personal conversation.
Kydd smiled and waved at a laughing mermaid sweeping by.
Emily, thinly disguised as a Spanish temptress, approached him at refreshments. 'Do I see you enjoying yourself, Mr Kydd?' she asked lightly, flourishing a large, colourful fan.
'Aye, Mrs Mulvany,' Kydd said, although his oakum beard was itching and his cardboard crown drooping in the heat.
'Do call me Emily,' she protested. 'May I, er .. .' 'Thomas it is, er, Emily,' Kydd said. 'Your husband?' 'Sadly, he cannot be with us tonight. A sweetmeat, Thomas?'
He had become aware that he was the centre of attention for several other ladies and turned to address them, but a disturbance at the entrance to the room resolved into the arrival of an imperious young officer, his tall hat tucked under his arm.
The hubbub went on, so he bent impatiendy to the resting string quartet, who obliged by sounding a single strident chord. The talking died in puzzlement, and the officer strode to the centre of the room. 'News!' he declared dramatically. An animated murmuring spread among the guests. 'The descent on England . ..' He waited for silence; the last news anyone had had was of the French fleet's sudden sally past Pellew's frigates towards England; all else was speculation. '. . . has been scattered, destroyed!'
Excited chatter burst out and Kydd exclaimed. The soldier turned to face him. 'They didn't attempt England — Irish traitors ready to rebel welcomed 'em over there, but it was a gale o' wind from the north, and the troops couldn't land.' He took a hurried breath. 'Our fleet missed 'em, but the storm sent 'em all ahoo and they're back where they came from, the knaves.'
'No invasion, no great battle.' The officer flashed a boyish grin at Kydd, bowed to the ladies and left.
In the babble of agitated comment that broke out Emily took Kydd's arm. 'This is Mr Kydd, and he's mate o f the Achilles she announced loudly. 'He shall explain it all to us.'
It would be of no use to protest the subtleties of naval rank and rating at this time: a rapidly gathering group of dryads, harlequins and nondescripts were converging on him wanting reassurance. But what were the full circumstances? Did 'destroyed' mean the French were lost in the weather? 'They're back where they came from' implied the invasion fleet was still intact and therefore a mortal danger. What if—
'Ye'll understand a storm o' wind at sea can't be commanded b' any admiral. If it blows, y' can't just—'
'A gale from the north?' The willowy faun had perfect white teeth and a remarkably well-turned ankle.
'Why, this is y'r worst news if you were a Frenchy,' Kydd began, to general interest, 'a foul wind f'r Ireland, right in y'r teeth—'
'What's it like in a storm, Mr Kydd? Do tell!' The young swan, fetchingly accented in blue, simpered under her eyelashes. Kydd blushed at the attentions from the attractive young women all around him. Emily frowned and stood closer, her hand still on his arm. Kydd felt it grip him hard.
Instinctively, Kydd knew he had been a success. Cockburn had pressed for details, and he had obliged, entertained by his friend's visible envy. He knew, however, that if Renzi had attended, his natural patrician urbanity would have assured him a place at the centre of things. Almost guiltily Kydd found himself grateful he had not been there.
His thoughts turned to Renzi's situation: he had heard that Admiral Jervis and his fleet were in the Tagus, Lisbon, encouraging the Portuguese, but they were the only force in any way able to meet the French, should they put to sea again. What would happen if both the French and the Spanish should simultaneously emerge and combine did not bear thinking about. And Nicholas was there . . .
Aboard Achilles, life settled to a dull routine. Most seamen had seen their means dissipated quickly. As the days turned into weeks their prospects for diversion were not large, and a disquieting pattern asserted itself: cheap wine and quarrels with soldiers ashore led to meaningless fights in the frustration of endless inaction. Aboard, 'hands to witness punishment' was now almost a daily feature, and the atmosphere in the mess decks was turning ugly. The officers found things to do ashore and were seldom aboard at night.
Kydd was restless too, but he found himself thinking more and more of Emily. Was he imagining it, or did she like him? He reviewed his attendance at the assembly—he was certain he had not let her down, and he was positive she had spent more time with him than with any other; in a glow he remembered her alabaster complexion, the startling blue-green eyes and delicate hands — Emily really was an attractive woman. She hadn't mentioned her husband much . .. Did that mean -
His eyes snapped into focus: the first lieutenant was coming aboard and looking at him curiously as he mounted the brow to the quarterdeck. Kydd touched his hat.
'Ah, Mr Kydd, I'm desired to give you this.' The officer fumbled inside his waistcoat and drew out an envelope, which he passed across, watching for reaction. It was in a hand Kydd recognised. He took it, and placed it carefully inside his jacket without comment.
In the absent master's sea cabin aft Kydd pulled out his letter and hurriedly broke the wafer.
My dear friend Letitia and I usually spend an enjoyable day on Thursdays sketching at Europa Point. Letitia thought that perhaps you might like to join us one time, should you feel so inclined. The prospects to be had of Africa and Europe together do entrance and would exercise the skill of a Girtin or Cogens but we will have such enormous fun.
If this appeals, would you signify to the above address at your convenience . . .
Kydd let out his breath. What could he read into this? With increasing elation he decided to consult with Cockburn as to the correct routine at a sketching party.
Never having ridden a donkey before, Kydd straddled the beast nervously; its round belly and knobbly spine felt utterly strange. Fortunately its grey ears flicked nonchalantly back and forth without resentment at his gawky mounting, and he perched on its back, feet nearly touching the ground. Feeling a fool, Kydd smiled tentatively at Emily.
'Well, then!' she responded, and tapped her donkey with a polished rattan. The little party wound off southwards: Letitia, Emily, Kydd and a weatherbeaten old Moor leading a donkey piled with easels and paraphernalia.
'So good of you to come,' Emily said. She was riding side-saddle, swaying in time with the clopping of the animal's hoofs.
'My pleasure, er, Emily.' He was aware of Letitia's covert gaze on him; she was a studious, quiet soul without much conversation - might that be due to his presence?
Within half a mile they had left behind the flank of the Rock and emerged on to the flat area at its tip, which Kydd knew, from the navigation charts, was Europa Point, and which he had fixed by bearing as they had approached from seaward.
They made their way to the rocky end of the land where there was a convenient flat ramp, and dismounted, Kydd's rump sore and aching. The ladies in their comfortable white exclaimed at the scene. At their feet, stretching to an immensity, was the deep blue of the sea, but straight ahead in the distance was the purple and grey-blue bulk of a mountain at the side of the spreading width of another coast. 'Africa!' announced Emily, with a dramatic flourish.
The Straits of Gibraltar to the left was the Mediterranean, and the primordial birthplace of civilisations; on the other side was the Atlantic Ocean and the pathway to the rest of the world. Kydd glanced to his right, at the nearby coastline angling away into the distance in a series of bays and headlands. 'Spain - Algeciras an' Tarifa,' he offered.
Emily turned briefly to check on the silent Arab, patiendy spacing out three easels to face the scene, then came to stand next to Kydd, shading her eyes to look over the glittering sea. 'And the mountain on the other side,' she said softly, 'is Jebel Musa in Morocco, which in ancient times they thought was the other Pillar of Hercules.' She looked up at him, almost searchingly. 'The end of the known world.'
Kydd felt an awkwardness, an almost adolescent clumsiness at her closeness, then she moved away to the easels. She sat at the middle one, delicately perched on the three-legged portable stool, making a business of unpacking her kit. 'Have you brought anything with you, Thomas?' she asked, in a brisk, practical manner.
'My silver-lead pencil of course,' Kydd said, with only a twinge of guilt that it was actually Cockburn's treasured possession, 'and a quantity of y'r common run o' Cumberlands.' The graphite from that county provided the whole world with fine black-lead pencils.
Emily had out a curious tray of colours, which she fastened to the easel. 'I have favoured cake water-colours,' she said, sounding to Kydd's ears suspiciously professional, 'since I saw what Captain Cook's artist did with those breathtaking views of Otaheite.' She poured water into a small well, and slung a selection of well-used brushes in a quiver to one side of the easel. She adjusted her wide-brimmed sun-hat and addressed her paper with purpose.
Kydd had a sketch book, unused, that he had acquired from a young midshipman in exchange for the loan of two clean white stockings. He set it up on the easel and selected a Cumberland; he would do the fine work with the silver pencil. Aware of Letitia's furtive glances, he sized the view.
It was not difficult — he had executed innumerable sea perspectives for the master of Artemis in the South Seas for inclusion on the margins of sea charts and knew the discipline of exactitude in representation.
With a light breeze and the occasional sound of gulls, it was pleasant work, and their surroundings were conducive to artistic expression. Kydd had soon finished the African coast, and began on the irregular Spanish landscape. This demanded care, for their height-of-eye at this elevation could cunningly deceive, turning square perspectives into slants.
'Oh, my goodness! You are good, Thomas! Look at this, Letitia — he has a very fine hand.' He had not heard her approach, and felt the heat of a blush at her words. She bent to admire his work, her femininity briefly enclosing him, then turned to him without drawing away. 'You will think my piece so amateur.' She giggled.
Taking his cue, Kydd rose and sauntered across to her easel, trying to look at ease. The watercolour was bold, using clear tints not perhaps justified by the hazy wash of sun over far objects, but had a vibrancy that he had not the experience to identify. But the coastlines were sadly out of proportion, the vertical dimension, as was always the way with beginners to a seascape, greatly exaggerated.
'It's — it's wonderful,' he found himself saying. Behind him Emily stifled a giggle. Kydd couldn't think what else to say and stared woodenly ahead.
'I say—I have a most marvellous idea!' He swung round at the sudden energy in her voice. 'We shall combine our talents — you have the strong structure, I shall add colour — and together we will produce a masterpiece.' She didn't wait for a reply, but ran over to his easel and abstracted his drawing, brought it back and clipped it over her own.
'There! Now we shall see!' Emily selected a broad brush and mixed a quantity of pale blue from the squares of colour in the ingenious wooden box. She soon had a colour wash in place, and set to with finer brushes on his coasts. Her cunning use of ochre and light purple had his pencil hatching underneath take on a sinister, distant quality, which undeniably brought a dramatic quality to the original.
Engrossed, she persevered at the fine work, her dainty hands perfect for the task. Kydd cast a glance at Letitia, still at her picture; their eyes met, but there was no answering smile.
At last, Emily leaned back and gazed critically at the result. 'There!' she said, and stared at it, motionless, for a space. She turned and looked up at Kydd with large eyes and said seriously, 'It's really very good, is it not, Thomas? We make quite a pair, I believe.'
Kydd felt heat rising, but before he could speak, Emily had snapped shut the box and stood. 'I think we have earned our picnic, don't you?'
'God blast ye, Mr Kydd, what d'you think you're about? You've not overhauled y'r clewlines.' The master was choleric: the times for the topsail setting evolution were sadly delayed by Kydd's failure to see that the clewlines were loosened at his mizzen-mast at the same rate as the sheets were hauled in.
It seemed everyone was in a state of enervation. Attempts to stir the ship's company to life with harbour exercises were met with sullen lethargy. The Achilles of the Caribbean was becoming a fading memory, the cruises to sweep the seas of the enemy, the landings to wrest yet another rich island from the French all in the past. Below, mess-decks were aligning themselves between the real seamen and the unfortunates of the quota.
Kydd could feel the resentment — and the broken-down pride. To be left to rot in port was hard for a good seaman to take, especially when England was menaced by as great a danger as she had ever been.
Evening drew in and, with it, more tiresome carping in the gunroom and petty quarrelling on the lower deck. Kydd made up his mind to take a turn along the streets of Gibraltar to get away.
It was impossible to avoid the wine shops at the lower levels of the town, and Kydd pushed past hurriedly, but at one angry shouts climaxed with the ejection of a thick-set seaman, who skidded angrily in the dust then staggered to his feet. It was a common sight and Kydd moved to go round the spectacle - but something about the build of the man made him hesitate.
It was Crow - Isaac Crow of the Artemis, the hard and fearless captain of the maintop who had been so much a part of Kydd's past — become a wine-soaked travesty of his former self. Kydd steadied him and leaned him against a wall. 'Isaac, where—'
'What - well, if it ain't me ol' shipma' Tom Kydd!' Crow chortled. His clothes were musty and ragged, probably all he had left after selling the rest for cheap drink, Kydd guessed.
His expression changed. In an instant his overly cheery features grew pinched, suspicious. 'A master's mate, our Tom Kydd, doin' well fer 'isself. Still know yer frien's, then?' He pushed away Kydd's steadying hand and drew himself up. 'Th' blackstrap they sells 'ere is worse'n goat's piss.'
'What ship, Isaac?'
Crow looked at him for a moment.' Weazle brig-o'-war.' It was an unrated minor warship, in Gibraltar for lengthy repair. 'Gunner's mate, but broke fer fightin' out o' turn.'
So now he was a common seaman, disrated no doubt for a frustrated flaring on the mess-decks while his ship was interminably delayed.
Crow stared at Kydd, his face hardening into contempt. 'It's gone ter rats — the whole fuckin' navy's gone t' rats. Shite off th' streets is gettin' seventy pound ter be a sailor, while we gets the same less'n a shillin' a day the buggers got back in King Charles's day. What sort o' life is it ter offer a younker t' go to sea?'
There was no answer to that, or to the unspoken loathing of professional seamen with pride in themselves having to share a mess room with the kind of men Kydd had seen. 'Isaac, mate, y' knows that a ship o' war can't be sailed b' the likes o' those shabs. It takes real seamen — like us!' Kydd felt the rise of anger. 'They'll always need us, an' just when are they going t' wake up to it?'
Crow turned on him slowly. 'Yer messin' aft wi' the grunters — why should yer worry yerself about us foremast jacks?' He held Kydd with his hard black eyes, then swayed back into the pot-house.
Kydd was taken aback by his words. He wandered for a time, then made his way back aboard before evening gun. Cockburn looked at him curiously, but Kydd did not feel like confiding in him: his origin was as a volunteer and midshipman and presumably, in the fullness of time, he would attract interest and gain a commission as an officer; he had never slung his hammock with the men, and could not be expected to know their true worth and particular strengths. It was something that he would give much to reflect on with Renzi: he could bring things to order in fine style.
Brought on deck by a general rush, Kydd saw from out of the early morning haze the 38-gun frigate La Minerve sailing into the anchorage.
Even the arrival of a single frigate was a noteworthy event, and there were few in Achilles who weren't on deck and interested in the smart ship coming to anchor. As she glided in, sharp eyes picked up a most unusual state of affairs: this frigate was wearing the swallow-tail broad pennant of a commodore, Royal Navy, in place of the usual sinuous length of a commissioning pennant, placing her notionally senior to Achilles.
The first lieutenant's telescope was steadily trained on the frigate's quarterdeck. 'I see him — Commodore Nelson! A firebrand if ever I heard of one.'
Another lieutenant gave a bleak smile. 'I know him -cares only to add to his reputation at the cannon's mouth whatever the cost to others, a vain soul, very vain.'
The master's stern face relaxed slighdy as he murmured, 'Aye, but he cares f'r his men as few does.'
The frigate's anchor splashed down and the vessel glided to a stop close enough for them to see every detail aboard, the sails vanishing from the yards in moments, the disciplined rush to each point of activity. The sharp orders and crisp flourishes of the boatswain's calls carried over the water. Even as the admiral's barge pulled strongly shoreward, a-glitter with gold and blue in the sternsheets, the launch and cutter were not far behind.
'Seems in an almighty pelt.' Cockburn grinned. It was in stark contrast to their own indolence. Recently Kydd had noticed the first green shimmer of weed below the waterline of Achilles also appearing on the anchor cable. But that didn't concern him today: Emily had offered to show him the top of the Rock.
It was donkeys again, but this time the party consisted only of Emily, Kydd and the quiet but watchful Letitia. They wound up a long path set at an incline to the face of the Rock. Emily kept up a pratde about the view and the history, all of which enabled Kydd to take his fill of her looks without pretence.
From the top, a rocky spine and smooth parts, the view was every bit as breathtaking as claimed — at this height the ships were models, the town buildings miniatures, but Kydd was more aware of the rosy flush on Emily's cheeks as she pointed out the sights. 'Ah, look there, Thomas!' Far below, Nelson's frigate was getting under way, her commodore's pennant lifting in the fluky breeze and with all sail set. 'What a picture it is, to be sure.' Impulsively, she laid her arm on his.
The frigate was smart in her actions, but was having a hard time in the uncertain wind eddies in the lee of the Rock, paying off in the light airs but nevertheless slowly gaining ground to the northwards.
'And are the others coming, too?' Emily added innocently, taking out her dainty ladies' pocket telescope.
Kydd frowned; the faraway ships she had seen were moored across the bay, in Spanish Algeciras — and they were sail-of-the-line. 'No doubt about it — but if y' would allow ...' She offered him the telescope with no comment, and two mighty enemy vessels leaped into view. If they caught up with the lone frigate, they could blast her to splinters.
'They're Spanish battleships, I'm grieved t' say,' Kydd said. Achilles had her bowsprit in for survey and was not in any condition to come to the frigate's aid. The Spanish ships had a steady wind in their favour, and had picked up speed; the English frigate's wind was still in the thrall of the huge Rock, and she could not beat back against the south-easterly to escape.
Kydd clenched his fists. This fire-breathing Nelson would not surrender tamely: the pretty frigate would be a shattered, smoking wreck even before he and Emily had had chance to spread their picnic.
'Thomas?' Emily's voice was edged with concern. Kydd stared through the telescope at the spreading drama. The larger Spanish three-decker was stretching away ahead of the other in her impatience to close with the frigate and, as Kydd watched, her guns were run out.
Then, unaccountably, the frigate slewed round into the wind and came to a stop. Kydd could find no reason for the action. A small boat ventured out from behind her, her crew pulling energetically. It was carried forward by the current toward the Spanish, but stopped half-way. At last he understood: La Minerve had come aback while the jolly boat attended to a man overboard.
The leading Spanish battleship shortened sail, slowing to drop back on her consort Cleariy she thought the move preposterous: there had to be a reason for the doomed frigate to round confidently on her pursuers. Could it be that she had sighted the English fleet coming to her aid?
Kydd could only watch in admiration as the frigate picked up her boat and made off in the strengthening breeze. The Spaniard clapped on sail, but he was too late — the frigate was well on her way.
Kydd punched the air in pent-up excitement. 'That was well done, blast m' eyes if it weren't!' he roared, too late remembering the ladies' presence.
* * *
Cockburn was uncharacteristically blunt. 'She is a married lady. It's unseemly to be seen so much in her company.'
Kydd glowered. 'An' have I been improper in m' actions?' he said. 'Do I press my attentions? Is she unwilling?' He challenged Cockburn with a stare. 'She's invited me t' see so many of her friends, right good of her—'
'She is a married woman!'
'So I'm to refuse her? I think not!'
Cockburn paused. He leaned back and said, in an odd voice, 'Do ye know her husband?'
Kydd's face hardened. 'She's not discussed him wi' me at any time — must be a poor shab, he doesn't keep station on her more. Mr Mulvany is—'
'The town major.'
A shadow passed over Kydd's face. 'Acting town major only,' he replied stubbornly. Cockburn kept his silence, but the pressure of his disapproval was tangible. 'An' I regret I cannot be aboard t'night. The bishop is receivin' an' I'm invited,' Kydd added.
The news of the climactic battle of Cape St Vincent broke like a tidal wave on Gibraltar. The anxieties of the past months, the hanging sword of an invasion and devastation, the flaunting of enemy naval power just a few miles away, as they passed in and out of the Mediterranean — their sea now — needed a discharge of emotions.
Over the horizon, on St Valentine's Day, two great fleets had clashed: fifteen British ships-of-the-line and a handful of frigates met the enemy's twenty-seven of-the-line and a dozen frigates, and had prevailed.
Admiral Jervis had been reported as saying, 'A victory is very essential to England at this moment,' and had gone on to achieve just that. Details of the battle were sketchy, but wild rumours made the rounds of the daring Commodore Nelson disobeying orders and breaking the line to fall on the enemy from the rear. Apparently he had then personally led a boarding party to the deck of one enemy battleship and from there to yet another in a feat of arms that must rank alone in its bravery.
Gibraltar went berserk with joy - bells, guns, excited crowds flooding into the street and, finally, an official feu de joie ordered by the governor. Six regiments stood motionless on the Alameda parade-ground in tight-packed rows, small field pieces at each corner. At twelve precisely, artillery thudded solemnly, then by command the redcoats presented their muskets — and a deafening running fire played up and down the ranks, beating upon the senses until rolling gunsmoke hid the soldiers. The noise stopped, the smoke cleared, and the spectacle was repeated twice more.
On the water, every ship replied with thunderous broadsides; even the smallest found guns to mount and fire. The sailors dressed their ships in flags and there were wild scenes that night in the grog-shops.
Kydd responded warmly, but this was tempered by the realisation that he had missed what must have been the defining battle of the age. With a stab of dread he realised that Renzi might have been struck down, mortally wounded, thrown overboard in the heat of battle. He fought down the thought, then turned his mind to other things. Emily.
At their last meeting, she had shyly offered a little package, neatly finished with a bow. It was a pair of gloves - kidskin, probably Moorish, but of obvious quality. There was no conceivable need in his station for gloves, but Kydd's imagination grew fevered with conjecture. A gift from her to him: what did it mean?
He found Cockburn with a slim book. 'Tarn, I'd be obliged f'r the lend of a clean waistcoat, if ye please. That scurvy gunroom servant's in bilboes after a spree ashore.' Cockburn looked up, but said nothing. 'I have t'go somewhere tomorrow,' explained Kydd.
Cockburn laid down his book. 'Tomorrow, it seems, I shall need my waistcoat,' he said, his face hard.
This was nonsense: without means, he was spending all his time on board. 'Then y'r other one — I know you have 'un.'
'Strangely, it appears that I shall need that also,' Cockburn said evenly.
Kydd breathed hard. 'An' what kind o' friend is it that—'
'A friend who sees you standing into perilous waters, who fears to see you play the cuckold without—'
'She cares f'r me, I'll have ye know.'
'Oh? She has told you? Pledged undying love when not free to do so?'
Kydd clamped his jaw shut.
'I thought so. You are naught but a fool,' Cockburn said, in measured tones, 'treading a path where so many poor loobies have gone before.' He sighed and returned to his reading. 'I can only grieve for your future.'
'Be damned t' you 'n' y'r prating,' Kydd snarled, and stormed off petulantly.
* * *
They started in the cool of the morning, Emily mysterious as to their destination. 'It might be Africa - or the bowels of the earth. Or the very summit of the Rock ... or perhaps all three.'
Kydd grunted in bafflement, but was much taken by Emily's outfit; instead of the wide morning dress, it was a more close-fitting garment. Letitia followed behind, leaving the conversation to them.
They emerged on to the upper spine of the Rock, a stretch of rifted rock layers, covered with furze and pungent with goat smell. Emily descended daintily from her donkey and pointed to an irregular small peak. 'The highest point of the Rock,' she declared.
Silently cursing his clumsiness, Kydd staggered off his beast.
'Governor O'Hara wishes to build a tower on it, which he swears will allow him to look into Cadiz bay,' Emily said, idly twisting her muslin scarf. 'The surveyor calls it "O'Hara's Folly", but he will not be dissuaded.'
Her cheeks appeared rosier at this height, wisps of hair framing her face under the wide straw hat, and Kydd felt desire build. He glanced behind. There was Letitia, still on her donkey, her unblinking eyes gravely on him.
'They call him "Cock o' the Rock",' Emily said, with a giggle, then dropped her eyes. To cover his embarrassment, Kydd bowed gallantly to Letitia and offered to help her down, but she shook her head mutely and slipped easily to the ground.
From nowhere a dark-complexioned Iberian appeared, taking the donkey bridles and fixing Kydd with glittering, unfathomable eyes. Kydd hastily caught up with Emily, Letitia as usual falling behind.
'This is our destination, then,' Emily said. *I do hope you think it interesting.'
'Africa? Th' bowels of the earth?' It was nothing more than an undistinguished cleft in a jutting crag.
Emily stepped forward confidently, Kydd at her side. It was a cave of sorts, the outside light dimming the further they entered, their footsteps changing from a tap into an echo as the light died and mysterious vertical shapes appeared from out of the Stygian blackness.
She stopped to let the Iberian catch up. He produced candles in colourful pottery holders, and got to work with flint and steel. As each flame leaped and guttered, the golden light spread to reveal a huge vaulted cavern, a magnificent palace of gilded stone.
Emily's candle illuminated her face from beneath in an unearthly radiance, and for a long moment Kydd was lost to her beauty.
'St Michael's cave. Such a spectacle - you'd never know that the Rock is hollow from the outside,' she said softly, her eyes wide. The cavern smelt of damp soil, and tiny drip sounds were amplified all around.
Letitia shivered, and stepped back, pulling her shawl close.
Emily pointed forward: the path trended down, then reached a lip of rock. 'We must climb down there.' It continued as another chamber beyond, untouched by their candlelight.
'I — I shall wait here, Emily,' came Letitia's small voice. 'I have no stomach for these places. Do let's return now.'
'Nonsense, Letitia. I mean to show Thomas the inner chambers.' Carefully she laid her candle-holder on the stone, and slid over the lip to the blackness beyond. 'Come along!' she called imperiously to Kydd.
The inner cave was smaller, longer, much colder. The path dipped sharply, and as they plunged out of sight Letitia's plaintive voice echoed, 'Please hurry back - I'm frightened.'
Kydd kept up with Emily, the candlelight casting startling shadows that continually moved as if alive. They entered a vast chamber, the sounds of their steps and voices dissipating into the cold, breathy stillness..
Emily stood still, gazing upwards, enraptured. She moved further in, found a broken-off stalagmite and placed her candle on it, letting the tiny golden light lose itself in the distance, as it did, hinting at fantastic shapes in the gloom. 'Isn't this the most splendid sight you have ever seen?' she breathed.
Kydd's heart was thumping: this was the first time they had been alone.
Her eyes roamed upwards, and Kydd added his candle to hers. The combined light beamed out strongly and grotesque shapes were illumined on all sides. But Emily's face was brushed with gold.
'We're now in the centre of the Rock! No one has ever reached the end of these caverns — it is said that they stretch all the way to Africa . ..' Her voice was a whisper of awe.
A swell of emotion surged in Kydd — a wellspring of feeling that could not be stopped. It found focus in the soft loveliness of Emily's face. He closed with her, held her, and kissed her in silence.
Her lips were formless with surprise, but she did not resist: his kiss grew deep with passion and she responded avid and strong, her body pressing against his. They broke apart, hands clasped, staring into each other's eyes.
'M' dear Emily! You - you're . . .' Kydd was shaken with the power of his feelings.
She did not speak; her face was flushed and taut. Kydd still held her hands, and their warmth and softness triggered another passionate upsurge. He pulled her close, but she turned away her face, yet not resisting him.
Baffled, he let his arms drop. 'Emily, I—'
'Thomas, please.' Her voice was shaky. She disengaged from him, and half turned away. Kydd was unsure of what was happening; he felt gauche and adolescent.
'We — we must return, Letitia is on her own.' She avoided his eyes, but did not try to move away.
Kydd sensed he would lose all if he pressed his attentions now. He picked up his candle. 'Yes, of course.'
A trim 28-gun frigate materialised out of the morning haze to seaward, slow and frustrated by the light winds. But Kydd was not watching. He'd gone to the master's sea cabin, ostensibly to correct charts for the Spanish coast but in reality to struggle with the wording of a letter to Emily. They had returned safely from the cave, and after a somewhat distant leave-taking, which he put down to necessary caution in front of Letitia, they had parted.
It had now been some days since they had met, and his mind was feverish with thoughts of her. He had to decide if her silence meant that she was waiting for a more bold approach from him, even a romantic gesture. He knew he was not as taut a hand in these waters as he would like, and it was too much to expect a steer from Cockburn, whose cold manner now wounded him.
All he knew was that he was besotted with her. He stared at the bulkhead, seeing her lovely eyes and perfect lips. It was time for action! He would invite her casually for a tour of the ship - after the dog-watches but before the frustrated men started their interminable drinking and fighting.
He scratched his head at the taxing necessity of getting the wording exactly right; it would not do to have his motives misconstrued. 'Dear Emily' . . . Damn! Of course he must put something more in the formal way. Another piece of paper. The master did not have many fresh sheets in his cabin desk: he always employed the other sides of used paper for everything except formal work.
'Dear Mrs Mulvany, It would be a right honour to escort you on a visit aboard my ship, HMS Achilles 64.'
From time to time the officers brought their ladies of the moment on board for a quick and often scandalised peek, and the petty officers and men brought their much more worldly doxies to the fo'c'sle when they had the silver to afford them. His lady was much more the prime article, and he could see her now, by the capstan whelps, cool and elegant, asking how the bars were pinned and swifted, then smiling that warm and special smile at him.
In a glow, he continued: 'Please signify when you are free, and we will meet wherever you say.'
That was all that was needed. After the visit they would step ashore together, and who knew what might then eventuate? Kydd's brow furrowed at choosing the closing words, and he decided on a more neutral cast: 'Your devoted friend, Thomas Paine Kydd.'
There! He folded the paper, and looked for a wafer to seal it. He rummaged guiltily in the compartments of the master's desk, but found none, or even red wax. The ship's messenger would take the letter readily enough on his forenoon rounds for a coin or two, but Kydd did not want him to read its content. He remembered that the caulkers were at work around the main-hatch: he would use a blob of caulking pitch as sealing wax. Admittedly it was black instead of red, but that would not trouble a lady of Emily's breeding.
Kydd strolled back to the quarterdeck and saw the little frigate. She was making a cautious approach, probably to warp alongside the New Mole. Lines were passed, capstans manned, and she was neady brought in.
Distracted, Kydd went below to rouse out a crew for cleaning down after the caulkers, but his mind was not on the job. When he returned to the upper deck he caught a glimpse of a boat rounding under the stern of Achilles. It was probably from the frigate, and he watched the bulwark to see who would come over.
With unbelieving eyes, he saw Renzi hoist himself awkwardly aboard, touch his hat to the officer-of-the-watch, and look round. Kydd crossed over to him rapidly and held out his hand. 'Well met, Nicholas!' he said happily, but saw that things were not as usual with his friend. There were dark rings round his eyes and the handshake clearly gave him pain. 'You're in a frigate now,' Kydd offered.
'I am — Bacchante twenty-eight, a trim enough daughter of Neptune.' A smile cracked through. 'Quite fortuitous. Glorious was sadly knocked about in the rencontre before St Vincent and lies under repair at Lagos. I act temporarily in the place of a wounded mariner in the frigate, having the duty but never the glory, I fear.' He sighed. 'Yet here you lie in the same berth, topping it the sybarite while the world is in a moil - and I took such pains to come here of the especial concern I have for my friend.'
Kydd coloured, but the pleasure at seeing his best friend was profound, and he didn't rise to the gende gibe. 'You were there in th' great battle, wi' a mort o' prize money t' come, I suspect.'
Renzi looked away. 'I was, but. .. You shall have your. curiosity satisfied, should you be at liberty to step ashore this afternoon, I have a consuming desire to be at peace. Do you know of such a place we can—'
'O' course! We c'n—' Kydd stopped. If a favourable message came from Emily and by his absence he did not respond ... It was unfortunate timing but—
'Er, Nicholas, I've just remembered, I have an arrangement f'r tonight. It's very important, y' know,' he mumbled. Renzi's face fell. 'With a lady, y' see,' Kydd added hopelessly.
'Then we shall rendezvous on the morrow, and you shall hear my tale then,' Renzi said softly.
Kydd watched him leave, with a pang of guilt.
There was no reply by noon, and the afternoon hours passed at a snail's pace; Kydd had donned his best rig, in case Emily wanted to take up his invitation immediately. The ship was in harbour routine. After dinner at noon, those who were allowed, and had the means; quickly made their way ashore, the remainder settled down restlessly.
By the dog-watches he was torn with doubt. Had he been deceived by her manner, mistaken in his conclusions? But there could be no mistaking the need and urgency of that kiss.
The evening had turned into a study of scarlet and orange, the sea darkling prettily, with Thomas Kydd, master's mate, still to be found on deck. Then, after the evening meal, a message came. The coxswain of the gig's crew brought it to him, apologetically mentioning that due to being called away to attend the captain, he had not had a chance before to pass it along — and this from early afternoon.
Kydd ground his teeth and clattered below to the gunroom. The master had returned, so his cabin was no longer available. Savagely, he sent the midshipmen to their berth and, silently cursing the impossibility of getting privacy in a warship, settled to open the message under the eye of the sallow surgeon's mate and his bottle.
He inspected the inscription — 'Mr T. Kydd, HMS Achilles' — then split the wafer and hurriedly unfolded the sheet.
Dear Mr Kydd,
Thank you for the kind invitation to visit your ship. Unfortunately I have rather a lot of engagements at the present, hut will let you know when convenient.
Mrs Emily Mulvany
He reread, and again, slowly, so as not to miss any subtle clues. An initial wash of disappointment was replaced by logic: of course she would be otherwise engaged, it had been kind of her to fit him in before. 'Mr Kydd': cold or cautious lest the message fall into the wrong hands? The same might be said of the way she had ended the letter. In any event, he must bide his time.
Nothing could have been better calculated to ease Kydd's frustrations than his meeting with Renzi the following day. True to Renzi's wishes, the pair toiled up the hill to the commissioner's house, then found the path running along the flanks of the Rock. There was a row of fig trees on the upper side, and a vineyard below, with occasional olive trees to afford shade.
'This is particularly agreeable to the spirit, Tom,' Renzi said. They walked on in the warm sun in perfect silence but for the sough of the breeze, an occasional murmur of busyness from the distant town below and their own progress along the dusty ground.
The quiet was calm and companionable. Presently they came to a flowered area with a fine orange tree in the centre and a rustic wooden seat round it, a view of the harbour at their feet.
'Utterly peaceful — the work of man, yet supernal in its effects.' Renzi sat and stared at the view, then closed his eyes. Kydd's mind was alive with distractions of the present. Was Emily's letter a delaying tactic while she reviewed her feelings? Should he press his case more clearly, perhaps?
'A lady?' Renzi's lazy murmur cut through his rush of thoughts.
Kydd glanced suspiciously at him, but Renzi's eyes were still closed. 'Er, y'r in the right of it - but I beg, tell me of y'r battle. I heard it was a thunderin' good drubbing f'r the Dons.'
Renzi opened his eyes and stared into space. 'Little enough to say. It was a hard-fought encounter and they had overweening forces, but we prevailed.' He looked at Kydd with a sardonic smile. 'You would have been diverted by the sight of their Santissima Trinidad — a four-decker of a hundred and thirty guns, a leviathan indeed.'
As far as Kydd knew, the largest ship in the Royal Navy only had a hundred guns and three decks, so such a monster a third bigger should have made a devastating impact. 'Did she — who should say — get among our ships—'
'We took her.'
Kydd's eyes gleamed.
'Then we forgot about her, so she rehoisted her colours and retired from the field.' 'But Nelson, did he not—'
'The man is a genius of the sea war — daring and courageous with it. He will either die young or find great glory, nothing less.'
Kydd fell silent. While great deeds were happening on the open sea, he was wasting his life in port, going nowhere.
Renzi shifted position awkwardly. 'Somethin' pains you?' Kydd asked.
'Only a pinking from a splinter across my chest.' He turned to Kydd. 'You made mention of a lady.. .'
'Er, yes. Her name's Emily.'
'A fine name,' said Renzi drily.
'She's very beautiful.'
'I have no doubt she has shining parts,' Renzi prompted.
'There is somethin' that is stoppin' her showin' her true feelings.'
'She believes you are from an inferior station in life?'
'No. That's to say, this is not where the problem lies.' He struggled with what had to come next, feeling a chill of doubt for the first time. 'You see, Nicholas, right at th' moment. .. she is married.' Kydd blushed, then muttered protestations of love.
Renzi's expressionless mask did not change. Then, suddenly, he came to his feet, and paced round the small garden with his hands behind his back, once, twice, then returned to Kydd and stood before him. 'It seems to me the lady does not appreciate your true worth, my friend. She probably has cognisance only of the army life, never the navy.' He paused for effect, then announced gravely, 'I have a plan.'
'You shall be known for a daring, dangerous and romantic sea feat that will have the whole of Gibraltar talking. She will regard you as her adoring hero, her Galahad.'
' Ye're chousin' me! Achilles is not goin' to sea, there's no chance o' that.'
'No, but Bacchante is, and she needs men.' Renzi leaned forward. 'I'm quite certain that the frigate is bound for the eastern Mediterranean. It is not talked about, there is a smothering secrecy, but the application of a little logic suggests much. The master has taken in certain charts of the area, the vessel is under some kind of Admiralty orders, we are a private ship. The Mediterranean is now without a single English sail — why would the Admiralty risk a single valuable frigate in a sea so hostile?' Renzi paused. 'It is because they wish to rescue someone, a grandee, perhaps, but one of some consequence.'
The romantic possibilities of an audacious rescue of a notable were easy to see.
Renzi went on, 'We have abandoned our ports and bases and retreated to Gibraltar, the princes, governors and such ilk long retrieved. No, this is somewhere that is lately under threat, and for that we can discount the petty fiefdoms of the Levant, the decadent Ottomans, the Barbary coast — none would rate any personage of importance. Italy — now, the French have been pressing them from over the Alps, they have overrun much of the north. Austria is inviolate — for the moment — and I believe it is to Italy we are headed.'
A smile broke through; Kydd waited.
'None of the northern kingdoms of Italy has much in the way of diplomatic representation, so my conclusion is that our dignitary is stranded in the nor'-east after fleeing over the Alps and finding that the English are no longer there, having evacuated the Mediterranean entirely.'
'Er, what do we find in th' nor'-east?'
Renzi rubbed his chin. 'Well, there you will find the wild Balkan shore, Ragusa, but also Trieste - and Venice.'
Kydd spun the wheel experimentally - there was no doubt that Bacchante was a sea witch. Responsive and eager to the helm, she was like a racehorse — and nearly brand new — as sweet a lady as had ever come down the slip at Buckler's Hard. His practised eye flicked up to the leech of the main topsail, and he inched the helm over until the hard edge of the sail began a minute flutter. Satisfied, he checked first against the dog-vane in the shrouds giving the wind angle, then the compass.
A broad grin broke on his face, and he caught an amused look, tinged with respect, from the officer-of-the-watch. 'Damn fine sailer!' he muttered defensively. It had been a few years since he had last held the helm of a top frigate, and that had been the famous Artemis. Unable to suppress a sigh of the deepest satisfaction, he reluctantly surrendered the wheel to the duty helmsman, who was waiting patiently; Kydd had shipped in a vacancy of quartermaster and had the overall responsibility of Cockburn the conn, his rate of master's mate willingly put aside temporarily.
'Fletcher on th' helm, sir,' he called, as was his duty to the officer-of-the-watch, the courteous Griffith.
'Thank you, Kydd.' The officer resumed his pacing on the weather side, leaving Kydd to drink in the sheer pleasure of having a live, moving deck under his feet, the sweet curving of deck-lines set about with drum-taut rigging, the urgent hiss of their progress.
Renzi had been right: it had been announced that they were heading deep into the Mediterranean on some sort of venture to bring off a distressed but unknown worthy hiding somewhere on the other side of Italy. Kydd had jumped at the chance to volunteer for the voyage, even though for them every ship that swam must be hostile — and it was not certain they would survive to return.
'Do I find you in spirits, then, brother?' Renzi murmured, from behind him.
Kydd turned to him happily. 'Aye, y' do.' A chance to be involved in a romantic rescue, the prospect of weeks at sea with Renzi before they returned to Gibraltar, and all happening in this lovely frigate. 'A spankin' fine ship!'
'Larbowlines have the last dog?' Renzi's question was necessary, for as master's mate his watches conformed to the officers' while Kydd was back with the traditional two watches of the men. He was hoping he and Kydd could spend a watch companionably together, as in the old times.
'First dog-watch.' The forms would have to be observed: while all the ship knew Kydd's origins, he must now wear the blue short jacket and white trousers of a seaman, while Renzi must appear in the coat and breeches of a warrant officer. Kydd would address him as 'Mr Renzi' on watch, and would take his orders, which, in the immutable way of the navy, he would do without question.
They strolled together to the lee side of the ship, Kydd automatically checking the yeasty foaming of the wake as it slid aft to join with the other side in a perfectly straight line into the far distance - the helmsman would hear from him if there were any betraying dog-legs.
'It would seem we are set on a course to round Sicily and enter the Adriatic, but the captain is under orders to keep in with the coast of Africa to avoid being seen.'
Kydd was acquainted with the charts of the Mediterranean and understood the dangers of such a precaution. He glanced up at the red-white-red of their ensign — that of a unit of the Austrian navy, their disguise for this part of the voyage. 'Wind fair f'r Malta, five days north t' Venice, another three—'
'Master says the wind's dead foul this time of the year up the Adriatic'
'So that lets us get away fast, after,' said Kydd, with a chuckle.
Renzi gave a half-smile. 'We have a Venetian gentleman with us in the gunroom who will be our agent. He warns that we're in some measure of danger: the advance of the French into Italy is fast and unpredictable, and he cannot guarantee the loyalties of any.'
But in his present mood Kydd could not be repressed. It should be straightforward enough: a fast passage, send the boats in to bring off the fleeing notable, and a rapid exit, to admiration and acclaim in Gibraltar. They were not looking for trouble - it would go ill for the captain were he to rescue the fugitive, then hazard him in a battle.
Renzi swung round as the captain appeared at the main-hatch. He wore a frown of worry, and searched the horizon minutely. They were deep into a hostile sea where every man's hand was turned against them, every sail an enemy. 'How does the ship, Mr Griffith?' he asked at length.
'Well enough, sir—we shifted three leaguers aft, seems to have cured the griping.' Kydd and his party down in the hold had heaved aft three massive water casks to raise the vessel's bow, altering her trim such that her stem did not bite so deeply to bring her head to the wind.
'Very well. Do you spare no pains to impress their duty upon the lookouts!' 'Aye aye, sir.'
A broad vista of royal blue water, tinting darker as the evening drew on, was broken at the bows by a school of the small dolphins peculiar to this enclosed sea. They played around the bows of Bacchante, more like darting fish than the disciplined phalanx of the oceanic dolphin.
Renzi had his clay pipe going to his satisfaction and stared out into the blue, letting the peace of the evening calm his senses, the ceaseless wash and slop of the slight waves soothing to the soul.
'Y’r battle, it was a close enough thing, you say,' Kydd said.
'Elias Petit is no more. A round-shot destroyed him.' The gentle, simple mariner, who had shared their mess in the Artemis, had been slammed across the deck by the impact of the ball, his innards strung out grotesquely.
Kydd murmured a commiseration.
'And Joe Farthing lost a leg.' One of the few original Seaflowers, a careful, sober seaman of the best kind, he had been with them in the topsail cutter through all their adventures in the Caribbean. The last Renzi had seen of him was his contorted body carried down to the surgeon's knife with the ugly obscenity of a long splinter transfixing his limb.
'But it was a noble victory, Nicholas.'
'Of course it was, my friend, one that will be talked about for all of time.'
'Especially your Nelson - boards a ship, takes it, then uses it to board another.'
'They are calling it "Nelson's Patent Bridge for Boarding First-Rates".'
'Aye, and in Gibraltar the toast is "To Nelson fill bumbo/For taking Del Mundo". Wish ye joy of y'r prize money.'
Renzi took another puff on his pipe — he had been able to find the tobacco in Lisbon, the light but fragrant Virginia he now favoured. 'Um, your lady, would it be indelicate of me to ask her particulars?'
'Ah, yes.' Emily's image had slipped from Kydd's mind in the contentment of being at sea once more, but Renzi's question brought a pang. 'She's very partial to m' company, Nicholas. We've had some rare times vision' and sketchin' all over the Rock.'
Renzi's eyebrows rose.
Kydd's features took on a bashful cast. 'In a cave she kissed me — she wants me, I know it.'
'And her husband, what is his view of this?'
Kydd threw him an indignant look. 'He's not t' be troubled until Emily has settled her mind.'
'You've discussed this?'
'Not as who should say,' Kydd admitted. 'Ladies don't come to it as fast as we men - they need a bit o' sea-room t' see where they lies.'
Renzi considered. Ashore Kydd was an innocent, and he had got entangled with a married woman. It needed circumspection. His instinct to get Kydd away from the situation had been right, and it would be best to let nature take its course, no matter the cost to Kydd in wounded pride.
The north coast of Africa, low, drab, meandering, with no exciting features in its unrelieved ochre, lay to starboard and would stay there for the next few days. It was the coast of Morocco, Algiers and Tunis — the Barbary coast that had so often figured in the bloody history of the Mediterranean with slave galleys of Christian captives, unspeakable cruelties and straggling medieval empires. All just a few leagues under their lee.
'Steer small, blast y' eyes!' Kydd growled at the helmsman, all too aware of the consequences of falling off course to fetch up on this shore.
There was little shipping. Trading vessels showed prudence on sighting them; a throng of lateen-sailed feluccas clustered nervously together inshore as they passed, while a pair of xebecs came by from the opposite direction, purposeful and sinister, but showing no interest. They would keep in with the land, sheering out to sea around the fortified coastal cities, conscious that news of an English frigate at large would threaten their mission. But it was an odd feeling, knowing that the coastline to starboard was really the edge of a great desert with the rest of a fabulous continent beyond.
The forenoon wore on, sparkling seas as gentle and soft as could be wished, and it was pleasant sailing weather in the warm breeze. A point of land on the empty coast approached, and course was altered to keep it at a respectful distance. They slipped past towards the long bay beyond.
Kydd glanced in the binnacle at the leeward compass to check that the helmsman was being scrupulous in his heading. When his gaze came up, he knew something was amiss. Some indefinable sense told him that all was not right with the world. The ship was on course, all sails drawing well, the watch alert, nothing changed — yet something had.
His eyes caught those of the lieutenant on watch: in them he saw alarm and incomprehension. Exactly on course and with the same sail set, the frigate was slowing, her pace slackening little by little, no other sensation but a gentle retardation.
Sinbad. Ali Baba casting a spell on them. Something had got hold of Bacchante and was dragging her back. The hairs on the nape of Kydd's neck prickled; the world was slipping into fantasy. The ship dropped to a crawl, then gently stopped altogether, her sails still taut and drawing. Around the deck men froze.
A shout came from a seaman, excited, pointing over the side. There was a general rush to see and it became instantly clear what had happened. 'We're hard 'n' fast on th' sand!' In the green-brown waters a dusting of sand particles swirled lazily around the length of the hull.
The officer-of-the-watch blared out orders for the taking in of sail; the creaking masts were straining perilously, but the grounding had been gradual and gentle and, without the inertia of a sudden impact, the spars had been preserved.
Boatswain's mates hurried to the hatches, their pipes squealing an urgent summons. Sailors leaped up from below, racing up the shrouds, dousing canvas almost as quick as the yard could be laid, until Bacchante was naked of sail. The pandemonium subsided and the captain threw urgent orders at his ship's company: grounding a ship brought a court of inquiry, his actions of the next few minutes would determine if it turned into a court martial, presuming they survived.
The frigate had just passed abreast of a low point of land to enter the long bay beyond and the chart had promised the usual deep water, but the shitting sands of the desert must have blown out into the sea, forming a wicked spit. The usual lightening of the bottom in shoal water had been obscured by the unlucky proximity of a river in muddy spate after rains, and there had been no warning.
It was very bad news. The rock-solid deck underfoot indicated that they were firmly aground; everyone knew that there were no tides to speak of in the Mediterranean, no high tide to float them off. Worse, if the French or a Barbary pirate happened along and saw their predicament, they had but to approach by the stern or the bow of the immobile vessel in full scorn of their broadside, which was helplessly facing outward on each side.
The master was quickly into a boat, and had the hand-lead going steadily as he built up a picture all around the stranded frigate. There would then be only two options: to bump forward over the sandbank, or ease back the way she had come. Soundings confirmed that the shoal shallowed ahead, leaving a heaving-off as the only solution.
The most urgent necessity was to lay out the kedge anchor in the direction they had come; they would then heave up to it with the full weight of the main capstan. This was the best chance to see the ship into deep water again — it was unlikely she had suffered much in taking the ground in sand.
The boatswain had Kydd tumbling into the launch with a full crew of oarsmen. This was the biggest boat aboard, and he took the tiller knowing that his task would be to stream the kedge to its full extent. 'Out oars, give way together,' he growled, and began a sweep about to pass round Bacchante's stern to the kedge anchor stowage, atop the sheet anchor.
'Belay that!' The boatswain's bellow sounded above. 'We takes th' stream killick!' The stream anchor was ten hundredweight of iron, more than double the sinking weight of the kedge, and would bite well in the shifting sandy sea-bed. Kydd shoved over the tiller to come up on the stream anchor. Already seamen were at work on the outside stowage, bending on a fore pendant-tackle to take the weight of the big anchor while casting off the sea lashings.
'Oars,' Kydd ordered. There was no point in closing until they were ready aboard the ship. A yardarm stay tackle was secured to a ring stopper and shank bridle, and the tackles were eased off until the anchor was ready to be got off the bows — Kydd kept a comfortable distance while the weight was taken up.
He watched while a capstan bar was fetched and given to a brawny fo'c'sleman on the foredeck. When the big anchor rose to life, he plied it to pry the fluke clear of the timberhead, pivoting the moving anchor around the other fluke resting on the bill-board.
This was the moment Kydd had been waiting for. The massive anchor now lay suspended and clear of the ship's side, the imperfections and hammer-marks of the forge visible in the black iron swaying so close above him. He stood in the sternsheets, bringing the boat carefully closer and to seaward. 'Cast y'r bight!' A stout painter was passed around the throat at the base of the anchor, and paid out. Kydd's arm shot up as a signal, and the anchor started to dip into the sea, sliding in until only the broad wooden stock and ring showed. Another painter secured on the shank was quickly brought into the boat, and the most difficult part of the exercise approached.
Eased down, the anchor disappeared into the sea, but the first painter was heaved up on the opposite side of the boat. 'Right glad it ain't a bower,' muttered one seaman — a bower anchor was four times the size and another boat and sweaty labour indeed would have been needed to handle it.
The shank painter brought the stock of the anchor close and, working together, the two lines eventually persuaded the anchor to come to rest beneath the boat, hauled athwart the bottom, only the shank above water. The launch setded low in the water under the weight, the painters were secured to each other and they were ready.
Kydd again held up his arm, and the fall of the stay tackle was eased away until the boat had the full weight. Kydd's eyes darted round the boat — the dripping lines seemed in order, straining over the gunwales. He slid out his knife and, with a sailor gripping his belt, leaned far out and down into the water to get at the seizing of the suspending hawser. A vigorous sawing, and the thick rope fell free.
The deep-laden boat moved sluggishly; Kydd's men tugged at the oars with ponderous results. The sun was now uncomfortably high. They passed heavily down the length of the ship and, as they reached the stern, the end of a deep-sea lead line was thrown to them. This would be their measure of where to let the anchor go, and Kydd cleared it watchfully over the transom as they crabbed their way through the wind and waves.
He glanced back. A cable was being lowered through the mullioned windows of the captain's cabin into the smaller cutter; no doubt it would pass into the ship in a direct line to the lower capstan. That way there would be opportunity to man the capstans on both decks, doubling the force.
The cutter made good progress, and by the time the lead-line suddenly tautened, the cable was on hand, fully extended and ready to seize to the big forged-iron ring of the anchor. There was no need to wait for a signal from the ship: Kydd took up a boarding axe, and brought it down on the painters straining across the boat.
The severed ropes whipped away and, with a mighty bounce of the boat at the relieved buoyancy, the anchor plunged down. Now it was the turn of others — Kydd knew that the capstans would be manned by every possible soul. Bleakly he reminded himself of the penalties if they could not win the ship back to deep water.
Laying on their oars, the aching men in the launch waited and watched. The martial sounds of fife and drum sounded faindy; every effort was being made to whip them into a frenzy of effort. Time wore on, but Bacchante was not advancing to her anchor. Uneasily, Kydd threw a glance at the shore. The skyline was reassuringly innocent, but for how long?
The sun beat down. A peculiar smell - goats, dryness, sand — came irregularly on the light breeze that fluffed the sea into playful wavelets. It was peaceful in the boat, which was hardly moving in the slight sea, just the odd creak and chuckle of water.
The recall came after another twenty minutes. Kydd did not envy the captain in his decision - the ship was not moving. The next act would be to start water casks over the side, perhaps even the guns. And that would certainly mean the end of their mission, even if the move was successful.
Coming aboard again, Kydd could feel the tension. The captain was in earnest discussion with his officers on the quarterdeck. Renzi was there also; he regarded Kydd gravely, then cocked an eye at the shore. Kydd's saw that the low scrubby dunes were now stippled with figures.
'Moors — the Bedoo of the desert,' Renzi murmured, as Kydd took in the exotic scene; camels, strings of veiled Arabs still as statues, staring at the ship and more arriving.
Forward, men were grouping nervously. Everyone knew the consequences of being taken on the Barbary Coast. Renzi pursed his lips. 'It's not the Bedoo that should concern us,' he muttered. 'They can't get to us without boats. But your Moorish corsair, when he has his friends, and they make a sally together . . .'
The worried knot of officers around the captain seemed to come to a decision. Stepping clear of them, the boatswain lifted his call, but thought better of it, merely summoning the captain of the hold, a senior petty officer. 'Start all th' water over the side,' he ordered. Tons of fresh water gurgled into the scuppers from the massive leaguer casks swayed up from the hold.
'Rig guns to jettison.' Murmuring from forward was now punctuated with protests, angry shouts following the gunner's party as they moved to each gun, knocking free the cap-squares holding the trunnion to the carriage and transferring the training tackle to the eyebolt above the gunport. Now it only needed men hauling on the side-tackles and, with handspikes levering, the freed guns would tumble into the sea — and they would be defenceless.
A shout from a sharp-eyed sailor, who had seen something above the dunes along the coast, stopped progress. It rounded the point and hove to several miles off; twin lateen sails and a long, low hull gave no room for conjecture. 'We're dished,' said Kydd, in a low voice. 'There'll be others, and when they feel brave enough they'll fall on us.' Another vessel, and then another hauled into view.
The captain's face was set and pale as he paced. The master went to him diffidently, touching his hat. 'Sir, the ship settles in th' sand — if it gets a grip even b' inches, the barky'll leave her bones here.' He hesitated. 'I saw how Blonde frigate won free o' the Shipwash.'
'They loose all sail, but braces to bring all aback — every bit o' canvas they had. Then ship's comp'ny takes as many round-shot as they c'n carry, doubles fr'm one side o' the deck to the other 'n' back. Th' rhythm breaks suction an' the ship makes a sternboard 'n' gets off.'
With a fleeting glance at the gathering predators, the captain told him, 'Do it, if you please.'
The master went to the wheel. 'I takes th' helm. Kydd, you're th' lee helmsman.' Kydd obediently took position and waited. Sail appeared, mast by mast, hesitantly, shrouds and stays tested for strain at the unaccustomed and awkward situation of the wind taking the sails on the wrong side.
'Mark my motions well. When we move, it'll be dead astern, an' if we mishandle, we'll sheer around an' it'll all be up wi' us,' the master warned. A ship going backwards would put prodigious strain on the rudder, and if they lost control it would slew sideways and slam the wind to the opposite side of the sails. At the very least this would leave Bacchante with broken rigging, splintered masts and the impossibility of getting away from the gathering threat.
Kydd gripped the spokes and stared doggedly at the master. His job, as leeward helmsman, was to add his weight intelligently to the effort of the lead helmsman, and he knew this would be a fight to remember.
Shot was passed up from the lockers in the bowels of the ship, each man taking two eighteen-pound balls. 'One bell to be ready, the second and you're off,' the first lieutenant called from the belfry forward.
One strike: the men braced. Another — they rushed across the deck, more perhaps of a reckless waddle. They turned, and the bells sounded almost immediately. They rushed back. Some saw the humour of the situation and grinned, others remained straight-faced and grave.
Twice more they ran. Kydd snatched a glimpse up at the bulging, misshapen sails fluttering and banging above; the men were panting now. The boatswain had a hand-lead over the side, and was staring grimly at its steady vertical trend.
Near him Kydd could hear a deep-throated creaking amid the discordant chorus of straining cordage. He dared not look away — the moment, if it came, would come suddenly. The bells and thumping feet sounded again — and again.
The deck shifted under Kydd's feet, an uneven rumbling from deep within, and the boatswain's triumphant shout: 'She swims!'
Forced by the wind, the frigate started to slide backwards. The wheel kicked viciously as the rudder was caught on its side. The master threw himself at the wheel to wind on opposite helm, Kydd straining with him, following his moves to within a split second. The pressure eased, but the ship increased speed backwards, at the same time multiplying the danger in proportion.
The master's lean face became haggard with strain and concentration as together they fought the ship clear. A fraction of inattention or misreading of the thrumming pressures transmitted up the tiller ropes and at this speed they would slew broadside in an instant.
The rumbling stopped — they must be clear of the sand. Orders pealed out that had canvas clewed up, yards braced round and a slowing of their mad backward rampage. The master's eyes met Kydd's, and he smiled. 'That's cutting a caper too many f'r me,' he said, in a gusty breath of relief.
Kydd returned a grin, but he held to his heart that this fine mariner had called on him, Thomas Kydd, when he needed a true seaman alongside.
The beat north through the Adriatic was an anticlimax. After re-watering from a clear stream on the remote west coast of Sardinia, they had thankfully rounded Malta and Sicily at night, through the Strait of Otranto and on into the Adriatic. The stranding had not had any observable ill-effects.
They now flew the red swallow-tail of Denmark. It was unlikely that any French at sea would interfere with a touchy Scandinavian of a country they were in the process of wooing into their fold.
In the event, they saw no French. But they did, to Kydd's considerable interest, sight all manner of exotic Mediterranean craft. Built low but with a sharply rising bow in line with sea conditions in the inland sea, there was the three-masted bark, with its canted masts, lateen sails and beak instead of a bowsprit; the pink, which could use the triangular lateen sail interchangeably with the familiar square sail on its exotically raked masts, and the more homely tartan coaster.
Once, sighted far off and in with the coast, they saw a galley, fully as long as Bacchante, sails struck and pulling directly into the wind. The dip and rise of the oars in the sunlight was steady and regular, a never-ending rhythm that went on into the distance.
They were getting close to Venice at the head of the gulf, and that evening Kydd caught Renzi gazing ahead with an intense expression. 'Y'r Venice is accounted a splendid place, I've heard,' Kydd ventured.
Renzi appeared not to have heard, but then said distantly, 'It is, my friend.'
'A shame we can't step ashore. I'd enjoy t' see the sights.'
Renzi responded immediately: 'In Venice you'd see spectacle and beauty enough for a lifetime.' He turned on Kydd with passionate intensity. 'There you'll find the most glorious and serene expressions of the human spirit - and in the same place, soul's temptation incarnate, licentiousness as a science, a pit of profligacy! E sempra scostumata, if you'll pardon the expression.'
Kydd tried to resist the smile pulling at his mouth; at last, this was the Renzi he remembered, not the cheerless introspective he had seemed to become of late.
Renzi noticed and, mistaking its origin, frowned in disapproval. 'This is also, I might point out, the Venice of the Doge and his cruel prisons, where torture and death are acts of state and the Council of Ten rules by fear.
'But it is also the Venice of carnival,' he continued, in a softer voice. 'The masks will be abroad at this very time, I think you'll find, and in the evening—'
'You've been t' Venice before.'
Renzi looked away. 'Yes.' There was a pause before he went on: 'In the last years of the peace. You will know it is the custom for the sons of the quality to perform a Grand Tour. My companion and I knew no limits in the quest for education, you may believe.'
Kydd waited for Renzi to continue, and saw that it was causing him some difficulty. 'I was a different being then, one whose appreciation of life as the aggregate of pain and heart's desire was a litde wanting in the article of penetration to the particulars.'
Wondering what lay behind the careful cloud of words, Kydd decided not to pursue it. He had not seen Renzi so animated for a long time, but his features were a curious mixture of longing and sadness. Whatever blue devils were haunting him, the proximity of the fabled Venice had awakened life in him once more.
This far north the winds of spring were chill and strong; the frigate closed the Italian coast that night, and launched her cutter. It was too dark to make out much of the lonely figure of the Venetian agent helped down into the boat, but Kydd felt for him, going out alone into the unknown night.
Kydd knew the general area from the charts — a long thin spit of land enclosing a vast lagoon inside it, with the island of Venice in the middle. The agent had insisted they come no closer than the southern corner of the lagoon, the fishing-port of Chioggia, which now lay somewhere out in the darkness.
The cutter's sails went up and were sheeted home smartly, the boat quickly disappearing into the murk. After some hours it returned on time, magically reappearing under their lee having sighted the special red-white-red lanthorns set as a signal, and without the agent. Bacchante lost no time in making for the safety of the open sea, to spend the daylight hours in standing off and on.
It was disappointing — the whole mystery of Venice just out of sight, and one they would not see — for in the absence of any English opposition the French were rampaging down Italy in an unstoppable wave and could be anywhere. It was not a place to linger more than was necessary.
They returned that night; the agent would have news or, better, the important person himself, presuming all was well ashore. They could soon be in a position to crowd on all sail, turn about and fly back to Gibraltar.
Kydd didn't know whether to be pleased at an early return to Emily or dismayed at the prospects of reverting to his fractious, low-spirited ship. Emily's image seemed oddly unreal in his mind's eye, and he was uneasily aware that the hot sap that had risen before was gone.
He sought out his friend, who as usual was to be found on the foredeck with his clay pipe, taking advantage of the frigate's easy motion and looking pensively out to seawards.
'You think I'm pixie-led, quean-struck on her?' Kydd blurted, after a while.
Renzi turned to him, amused. 'Not as one might say.' Did his friend think that he was the first to be infatuated with an older woman? His own past was not one he could hold as an exemplar. In this very place he and his fellow young gentlemen on the Grand Tour had been shamelessly dissolute, uncaring and unfeeling as any young and careless sprig of nobility. But Kydd's honesty and sincerity in his voyage of self-discovery touched something in Renzi. 'Cupid casts his spells unevenly, capriciously, we cannot command his favours. If she has not been blessed in full measure with the same warmth of feeling as yourself, then ...' 'She has!'
'Oh? You said before that she hadn't declared her feelings for you, had not thrown herself at your feet.' Kydd remained silent, frowning. 'When you volunteered for this mission, there was no urgent message, no beseeching to keep from danger.' He paused significandy. 'In fine, your ardour exceeds hers?
Kydd reddened but said stubbornly, 'She'll be waitin' for me, see if she don't.'
'It might be the more rational course to allow her time to reflect. Cool your fervency, steady your pace — haul away, keep an offing, so to speak.'
'Aye, I c'n see this, but y' see, my course is set. Nicholas, before we sailed I sent her a letter, a warm letter in which - in which I made m' feelings known.'
'I wanted t' set her right about things. Make sure she knows — makes no mistake about m' passion.'
'May I know, er, what you said in this letter?'
It took some embarrassing prodding but the full story was not long in coming. In Kydd's own strong round hand it had opened with flowery darlings, then plunged into hot protestations of undying love, the usual heights and depths, and — was such innocence believable? - a final urging to find it in her heart to break with an unhappy, sterile marriage and flee with him to Paradise.
Renzi shook his head wordlessly. Then he said, 'If you sent the letter in the usual way, the husband might have intercepted it'
'I know,' Kydd said impatiendy. 'I took steps t' have it delivered personally.'
'My dear fellow - dear brother.' Renzi took a deep breath. 'Might I point out to you what you have just done? If, as I suspect, your lady is as yet — unformed in her affections, then your letter most surely will cause her great agitation of the spirit, will frighten her like a deer from the unknown.'
Kydd did not argue, but stared at him obstinately.
'And the rest is worse. It is a cardinal rule in any affair of the heart, which is — shall we say? - on an irregular basis, that nothing is placed in writing, which could, er, be misconstrued by a third party.' Renzi held Kydd's reluctant attention. 'For the passing on of your letter you will have secured the services of someone close to her, I assume her maid. The letter will most certainly be delivered — but she is not expecting it and it will be placed on a silver salver, as is our way in polite society, together with others, but you are not to know this. Her husband may be in residence, he will be curious at the unknown writing or the perturbation of spirits in his wife as she receives it. In short, my friend, you most certainly will be discovered.
'And if I recollect, it is mentioned that her husband is, in a substantial way, a member of the military.'
Kydd paled. 'Er, the acting town major, right enough. Do you — would he, d'ye think, want a duel or somethin'?'
Renzi held his stern expression, delaying his response as long as he could in the face of Kydd's anxious gaze.
'Well, I am obliged to point out that as you are not accounted a gentleman, he cannot obtain a satisfaction and would not demean his standing in society by a meeting.' He sighed and continued gently, 'Therefore a horse-whipping is more to be expected, I believe.'
There was a shocked silence. Then Kydd drew himself up. 'Thank ye, Nicholas, that was very kind in you t' make it all so clear,' he said quietly, and made his way below.
That night,, the agent was picked up, unaccompanied, at the appointed rendezvous. His news was not good; given in breathless haste as soon as he had made the dimly lit deck, it was overheard by the entire quarterdeck watch and, in the way of things, quickly relayed around the ship.
The grandee, a diplomat, Sir Alastair Leith, had planned to cross the Alps to safety in the independent republic of Venice, but things had gone from bad to much worse. Daring a lightning advance from France across the north of Italy to the other side, the French had taken city after city, putting the Austrians and Sardinians to humiliating retreat. Beautiful, ancient Italian cities, such as Verona, Mantua, Rivoli, were already in the hands of the vigorous and precocious new general, Napoleon Buonaparte, who was now flooding the rich plains of the Po valley with French soldiers. Soon the Venetian Republic and her territories would be isolated, quite cut off, and the history of this gifted land would be changed for all time.
'You saw the consul, did you not, Mr Amati?' the captain asked coldly. The ambassador would have long since departed, and English interests would be served by a consul, a local, probably a merchant.
The single lanthorn illuminated only one side of the agent's face and he shifted defensively. ‘Mi scusi — the city is violent, excited, he is deeficult to fin', Capitano.'
'So you were unable to contact him.'
'I did no' say that,' the Italian said, affronted. He was short, dark and intense, and his eyes glittered in the lanthorn light. 'I send a message. He tell me Signore Lith i' not in Venezia — anywhere.'
'Thank you.' There was now the fearful decision as to whether and for how long they should wait for him to appear or if they should make the reasonable assumption that he had been overtaken by the French. A frigate dallying off the port would inevitably attract notice, no matter which colours she flew, and in the heightened tensions of war she would soon be the focus of attention from ever}' warring power. Then again, if they sailed away, leaving stranded the delayed object of their mission . ..
The captain paced forward rigidly along the whole length of the deck to the fo'c'sle. Men stood aside, touching their hats but unnoticed. He returned, and came to a halt near the wheel, then turned to the waiting officers. 'I cannot wait here, yet we cannot abandon Sir Alastair.
'Lieutenant Griffith, I'd be obliged if you would go to Venice and there await his arrival. When he appears, it is your duty to hire or seize a vessel, and make rendezvous with me at sea. This will enable me to keep the ship well away from the coast. I propose to wait for ten days only.'
Griffith hesitated, but only for a moment. 'Aye aye, sir.'
'The master will furnish you with a list of our noon positions for the next fourteen days. I do not have to impress upon you the importance of their secrecy.'
'You will be provided with a quantity of money for your subsistence — which you will account for on your return, together with a sum for contingent necessaries.' He pondered, then said, 'You may find Mr Renzi useful, I suspect. And a couple of steady hands — it would be well to have a care when ashore, I believe. Who will you have?'
'Kydd, sir,' Griffith said instantly. 'Then, after a moment's reflection, 'And Larsson.' The big Swedish quartermaster was a good choice.
'We must rely on Mr Amati to find discreet quarters for you — the place will no doubt be alive with spies of every description, and you must be extremely circumspect.'
'Then we shall proceed to details.'
At Amati's suggestion, a trabaccolo, a. fat lug-rigged merchant craft, one of many scuttling nervously past in the dark, was brought to with a shot before her bows. Discussions under the guns of the frigate were brief, but English silver was considered a fair compensation for the delay, with the promise of more on safe arrival in Venice.
Bemused and interested by turns, Kydd clambered over the gunwale of the little coaster after Lieutenant Griffith. The crew lounged about the lively deck under an evil-smelling oil-lamp, watching stonily, the stout captain fussing them all aboard with a constant jabber of Italian and waving hands. Sea-bags clumped to the deck, and they were on their own.
Amati was clearly tense, and answered the skipper in short, clipped phrases. 'He say he wan' you to unnerstan' it ays forbidden to enter Venezia in th' night. We wait for day.'
Griffith grunted. 'Very well. Get sleep while you can, you men.' The three seamen found a place under a tarpaulin forward, over the cargo in the open hold. This was a tighdy packed mass of wicker baskets containing lemons, their fragrance eddying around them as they bobbed to the night current.
They awoke to a misty dawn, off a long, low-lying coast stretching endlessly in each direction. They were not alone: nearly two dozen other coastal traders were at anchor or moving lazily across the calm sea, morning sounds carrying clearly across the water.
Kydd rolled over. He saw Griffith waiting for Amati to finish a voluble exchange with the skipper, but Renzi lay still staring upward.
'So we're t' see this Venice, an' today,' Kydd said, with relish.
Renzi's dismissive grunt brought a jet of annoyance. His friend had become vexing in his moods again, dampening the occasion and making Kydd feel he had in some way intruded on private thoughts. 'M' chance t' see if it is as prime as ye say,' he challenged. There was no intelligible response.
Griffith clambered over to them, steadying himself by the shrouds. 'The captain wishes you to be — shall we say? — less conspicuous. Mr Amati says that there's every description of seaman in Venice — Dalmatian, Albanian, Mussulmen, Austrians - and doubts we'll be noticed, but begs we can wear some token of this part of the world.'
He looked doubtfully at Kydd's pea-coat and Larsson's short blue naval jacket. The crew members wore the bonnet-rouge, the distinctive floppy red headgear, and a swaggering sash. The Englishmen paid well over the odds for such common articles, which brought the first expressions of amusement from the crew.
The first diffuse tints of rose and orange tinged the mists when a gun thudded next to a small tower. As one, bows swung round and there was a general convergence on a gap in the coastline at the tower, a cloud of small ships slipping through the narrow opening, the trabaccolo captain at his tiller a study in concentration as he jockeyed his craft through.
It was only a slender spit of land, but inside was the Venetian lagoon, and Venice. The spreading morning vision took Kydd's breath away: an island set alone in a glassy calm some five miles off, fairy-tale in the roseate pale of morning, alluring in its medieval mystery. He stared at the sight, captivated by the tremulous beauty of distant bell-towers, minarets and old stone buildings.
The lagoon was studded with poles marking deeper channels and Kydd tore away his attention to admire the deft seamanship that had the deep-laden trader nimbly threading its way through. The trabaccolo was rigged with a loose lugsail at the fore and a standing lug at the mainmast, an odd arrangement that had the lower end of the loose lug swung round the after side of one mast when tacking about, but left the other on the same side.
As they approached, the island city took on form and substance. A large number of craft were sleepily approaching or leaving, the majority issuing forth from a waterway in the centre of the island. They tacked about and bore down on it and it soon became apparent that a minor island was detached from the main; they headed towards the channel between, towards a splendour of buildings that were as handsome as they were distinctive.
Kydd stared in wonder: here was a civilisation that was confident and disdainful to dare so much magnificence. He stole a look at the others. The crewmen seemed oblivious to it, faking down ropes and releasing hatch-covers; Larsson gazed stolidly, while Renzi and Griffith both stared ahead, absorbed in the approaching prospect. Amati fidgeted next to the captain, visibly ill at ease.
They shaped course to parallel the shore, passing a splendid vision of a palace, colonnades, the brick-red of an impossibly lofty square bell-tower. 'Piazza San Marco,' Renzi said, noticing Kydd's fascination. 'You will find the Doge at home in that palace. He is the chief eminence of Venice. You will mark those two pillars - it is there that executions of state are performed, and to the right, the Bridge of Sighs and the Doge's dread prison.' He spoke offhandedly, and Kydd felt rising irritation until he realised this was a defence: his cultured friend was as affected as he.
Griffith broke off his discussion with Amati and came across. 'You see there,' he said, pointing at a golden ball displayed prominently at the tip of the approaching promontory, 'the Saluday, the customs house of Venice. We shall be boarded, but Mr Amati says there'll be no difficulties. They're much more concerned to levy their taxes, and foreign seamen are not of interest to them.'
He gave a small smile. 'I will be a factor from Dalmatia, Mr Renzi will be my clerk.' Griffith wore the plain black last seen on Bacchante's surgeon. 'We may disembark and take passage to our lodgings without interference.'
True to anticipation, the revenue officials ignored them in favour of a lively interchange with the captain, leaving them to hail and board one of the flat work-boats sculling about.
They clambered into the forward well and settled. 'Dorsoduro,' Renzi said briefly, eyes on the colourful, bustling shore ahead. 'And this, my friend, is the Grand Canal.'
It was impossible not to be moved by the unique atmosphere of Venice — a true city of the water. Every building seemed to grow straight up from its watery origins with not an inch of wasted space. Instead of roads there were countless canals along which the commerce of the city progressed in watercraft of every kind in a ceaseless flow on the jade-green waters.
They passed deeper into the Grand Canal, seeing the mansions of the rich, each with a cluster of gaily coloured poles outside, an occasional market, throngs of people going about their business.
A bend straightened, and into view came a bridge, a marvellous marble edifice complete with galleried buildings all along its length. 'The Rialto,' said Renzi. 'You will, of course, now be recalling Shakespeare and his Merchant of Venice’
The work-boat glided up to a landing platform short of the bridge, and they stepped out into the city-state of Venice. ‘La Repubblica Serenissima,' breathed Renzi. They were on the left bank with its fish-markets, pedlars in sashes and pointed shoes, peasant women in brighdy coloured skirts with pails of water on yokes, shopkeepers yawning as they arranged their cheeses, porters trundling kegs of salted sardines, all adding to the tumult with their florid Venetian dialect.
Amati wasted no time. 'Follow!' he demanded, and plunged into the crowd. They fell in behind, their rapid pace taking them into a maze of alleyways between many-coloured buildings until they came on a dark and heady-smelling tavern. In the rank gloom was a scattering of foreigners, hard-looking Armenians, Jews, unidentifiable eastern races. The chatter died and faces turned towards them as they slid on to benches at a corner table.
'Da mi quattro Malvasie’ Amati snapped to a waiter. 'Sir, you stays here - please,' he told Griffith in a whisper.
'Where are you going?' Griffith asked suspiciously.
'The consul, Signor Dandolo, he will come soon. I — I must go to my family, they expec' me.' His eyes flicked about nervously as he spoke.
Kydd glanced across at the heavy Swede, whose set face gave away nothing. Renzi looked subdued. 'He don't want to be seen wi' us,' Kydd murmured, only too aware that they were unarmed. Griffith looked troubled.
'We are enjoying a visit to a furatole’ Renzi said, with a wry smile, 'a species of chop-house, this one frequented by despised foreigners. Eminently suitable as a rendezvous, I would have thought.'
Four earthenware pots of coarse wine arrived, a litde later fish soup. The sailors tucked in, but the penetrating strength of the anchovy stock dismayed them. Only Renzi finished his bowl, with every evidence of satisfaction. Hard bread was all that was on offer afterwards.
Short and stout, but with dark, intelligent eyes and a quick manner, Dandolo arrived. He was dressed in flamboyant reds and greens, and he quickly got down to business. 'Signor L'ith ha' still not arrive. You must stay how long, one, two week? Then I mus' find some lodging.' His eyes narrowed. 'You have money?'
Griffith brought a small purse into view and placed it on the table. It clinked heavily. 'Guineas,' he said, but kept his hand over it.
Dandolo kept it fixed with his keen eyes. 'This Buonaparte is too lucky, he win too fast. All Friuli is in danger of him. There are some 'oo say Venice is too old to keep 'er empire, others, it frighten trade, threaten th' old ways. The Doge is weak and fear the Council of Ten — but now I must fin' you somewheres.'
Pausing only for a moment, he turned to Griffith. 'Sir, you will come wi' me to the Palazzo Grimani. The marinaio, they go to San Polo side—'
' Una camera vicino alia Calle della Donzella, forse?’ Renzi interrupted, with a twisted smile.
'Si.' Dandolo looked sharply at him. 'With the foreign sailor. You know this place?'
'Yes.' There were amazed looks from the other Englishmen, the sort of admiration reserved for those who had learned something of a foreign language.
'Y'r Grand Tour - ye must have had a whale of a time!' Kydd chuckled.
Renzi grinned shamefacedly. 'We stayed at the Leon Banco, on San Marco side. It was considered a dare to spend a night with ... on San Polo side . . .'
Griffith had been as strict as the circumstances allowed. Renzi, as master's mate, was placed in charge, and they occupied the top floor of a doss-house for merchant seamen, a single dark room with rag palliasses and a scatter of chairs and tables.
Wrinkling his nose at the smell, Kydd crossed to one of the mattresses, threw aside the cover and brought down his fist in the centre. He inspected the result: several black dots that moved. He wouldn't be sleeping there that night. Renzi's face was a picture of disgust. Below in the tavern a rowdy dice game was already in progress, a swirl of careless noise that would make sleep impossible.
'So . . .' began Kydd. Larsson kicked aside some palliasses to make a clear area, then dragged up a table and three chairs.
They looked at each other. 'Sir Alastair might come at any time.' Renzi's words were not convincing, and Kydd detected a wariness.
'Aye, but must we stay in - this?' he asked.
All eyes turned back to Renzi. He cleared his throat, and folded his arms. 'The French are near.'
Kydd sat back: Renzi was now going to make things clear.
'Venice is a very old, proud and independent republic, and she has no quarrel with revolutionary France. In the legal sense, therefore, we have as Englishmen a perfect right to be here, no need for disguise, dissembling.' He pondered for an instant. 'However, it would make sense not to embarrass the authorities if they must deny knowledge of the presence of English citizens to the French. I rather think our best course would be to lie low and see what happens. We must make the best of our circumstances, therefore.'
'We must.' There was a heavy silence.
'Why is th' agent, Amati, s' skittish, then?'
'Here we have an ancient and well-worn rule of government that is unique to this place. There are no kings, rather they elect one who should rule over them - the Doge. The first one over a thousand years ago, in fact. And there are nobles, those whose names are inscribed in the Golden Book of the Republic, and honoured above all.' He paused. 'But the real power lies at the palace in the hands of the Council of Ten, who have supreme authority over life and death. They rule in secrecy - any who is denounced risks a miserable end in the Doge's prison. This, perhaps, is the source of his terror.' Renzi continued: 'But on the other hand, even while we are here in durance vile, there are at this moment — and not so very far from here — rich and idle ladies who think nothing of waking at noon, supping chocolate and playing with their lapdogs.' He smiled at his shipmates' varied expressions and went on, 'Should you desire — and have the fee — you may choose from a catalogue your courtesan for her skills and price.'
Talk of this soon palled: the contrast with their present situation was too great.
Almost apologetically, Renzi tried to change tack: 'In Venice gambling is a form of art. Should there be a pack of cards, and as we have time on our hands I would be glad to introduce you to vingt et un - perhaps, or . ..'
Time dragged. A noon meal in the smoke-blackened furatole did not improve the oudook of the three seamen.
Back in the room, Larsson's expression faded to an enduring blankness, and Renzi's features darkened with frustration. Many times he went to the grimy window and stared out over the rooftops.
'I needs a grog,' grunted Larsson, challenging Renzi with a glower.
Renzi didn't answer for a time. Then, suddenly, he stood up. 'Yes. Below.' He left the room abrupdy, without his coat.
Kydd jumped up and followed, tumbling down the stairway. 'Garba!' he heard Renzi shout. It was rough brandy and water; Kydd had no real desire for it, and was unsettled by Renzi's deep pull at his pot.
The third round of drink came. In a low, measured tone, Renzi spat vehemently, 'Diavolo!' The others looked at him. 'This is Venice?
'Aye, and so?' Kydd asked.
Renzi glared at him. 'When last I was here . . .' He stopped. His knuckles showed white as he gripped the stone drinking vessel. Then he got to his feet in a sudden clumsy move that sent Kydd's pot smashing to the floor. Curious eyes flickered from other tables.
'I'm going out!' Renzi said thickly. T' breathe some o' the air of Venice. Are you with me?'
'An' what about Leith?' Kydd wanted to know.
A quick smile. 'Taken by the French long ago,' Renzi said contemptuously, 'How can he get through a whole army to us here? No chance. We make our time here as bearable as we can. Are you coming?'
Kydd saw that something serious had affected his friend, and resolved to stay by him. 'I'll come, Nicholas.' Larsson merely shook his head.
The evening, drawing in, had a spring coolness, but this did not deter the swelling numbers joining the hurrying tradesmen, market porters and domestics concluding their working day. An outrageously sequined and powdered harlequin stumbled by, well taken in drink, and an apparition emerged from the shadows wearing a cruel bird's-head mask and flowing blue cape. It trod softly, a thinly disguised Dulcinea on its arm in a red silk swirling cape and a glittering mask.
It was dream-like and disturbing: no one took any notice of the grotesquerie in their midst. A group of masked revellers turned the corner, laughing and singing to the discordant accompaniment of timbrel and tambourine.
Kydd stood rooted in astonishment. 'Is this—'
'Carnivale!' cackled Renzi harshly. 'The world is aflame, and all they think of is carnival!'
A couple passed, exchanging kisses, elaborate coquetry with their masks doing little to conceal the naked sensuousness of their acts. Renzi stopped, staring after them. 'But who then is to say — in all logic, for God's sake — that they are the ones with the perverted sense of the fitness of things, their perspectives malformed, their humanity at question?'
He breathed heavily, watching a figure in a russet cloak approach. The man's mask had slipped, exposing his foolish, inebriated grin as he staggered towards them. Renzi tensed. The figure bent double against a wall and Renzi darted across and toppled him over.
'Camivale!' he howled triumphantly, tore away the cloak and snatched up the ivory mask. ‘Se non ha alcunia obbiezione' he threw at the fallen form.
Kydd was appalled. 'Nicholas, you — you—' But Renzi had thrown the cloak around himself, and pushed forcefully ahead, predatory eyes agleam through the cruel saturnalian mask.
Kydd hurried after him, helpless in the face of the unknown demons that possessed his friend. The narrow maze of streets now looked sinister, threatening. Renzi plunged on. A small humped bridge appeared ahead, spanning a canal. The blaze of a link torch carried by a servant preceded a decorous, well-dressed group, which scattered at Renzi's advance.
They were soon in an ancient square with a dusky red church facing them. Light showed in its high windows. As they thrust across, music swelled from it. Renzi faltered, then stopped. It was a choral piece, the melodic line exquisitely sustained by a faultless choir, the counterpoint in muted trumpet and strings a meltingly lovely intertwining of harmonies.
Kydd stopped, too, as the music entered his soul. Within those moments came a dawning realisation that there were regions of the human experience above the grossness of existence and beyond the capability of the world to corrupt and destroy.
He turned to Renzi, but his friend was lost, staring at the church, rigid. Kydd tried to find some words but, suddenly, Renzi crumpled to his knees. The mask fell and Kydd saw his face distort and tears course down.
'N-Nicholas—' He struggled to reach out Around them the people of Venice busded with hardly a glance, the harlequins, falcons and the rest in a blur of colour and impressions, and all the time the cool passion of the music .. .
Kydd tried to help Renzi up, but he pulled himself free and shot to his feet
Renzi rounded on him, his face livid. 'Damn you!' he shouted. 'Damn you to hell!' His voice broke with the passion of his words.
'M' friend, I only—'
Renzi's savage swing took Kydd squarely, and he was thrown to one side. He shook his head to clear it, but when he was able to see, there was no sign of Renzi.
Images streamed past Renzi, as bittersweet memories flooded back. He pushed past the gay troubadours, weary craftsmen, giggling couples, bored gondoliers — on and on into the Venetian night. His thoughts steadied, coalesced. For someone whose pride disallowed a display of emotion, his sudden loss of control in the square was disturbing and frightening.
His frenetic pacing calmed and he took note of his surroundings. He was heading in the direction of the dark rabbit warrens around Santa Croce and turned to retrace his steps. Then, recalling the soaring beauty of the Vivaldi that had so unfairly got under his guard, he stopped, confused. In truth, he could not go back — or forward.
A memory of what had been returned in full flower. The more he considered it, the more he yearned for her, the calm certitude and steel-cored passion he remembered from before. He had to go to her.
Lucrezia Carradini was married, but that had not mattered before and would not now; in the Venetian way it was a matter of comment if a lady did not have at least one lover. He racked his brain to recall her whereabouts — yes, it was somewhere near the Palazzo Farsetti on San Marco side.
With rising excitement he made his way to the Grand Canal, taking an indolent gondola trip, then stepping feverishly through the night until he found himself before the Palazzo Carradini. He remembered the ogling brass-mouth knocker, but not the servant who answered the door.
‘Il giramondo’ he said, as his name - 'the wanderer'. Would she remember?
Footsteps came to the door. He raised his mask. It opened slowly, and there was a woman before him, in red velvet and a mask. Renzi saw the glitter of dark eyes behind the mask, then it dropped to reveal a delighted Lucrezia. Her vivacity and Italianate presence were just as he remembered. 'Niccolo — mio caro? Niccolo!' she screamed, and clung to him, her warmth and fragrance intoxicating. He thrust back guilt at the memory of how he had treated her and allowed himself to be drawn into the house.
In the opulence of the chamber she eyed him keenly. 'You - you 'ave changed, Niccolo,' she said softly. 'An' where Guglielmo?'
It were better that his wild companion of the Grand Tour be allowed to live down those days in anonymity, Renzi decided. He was now one of England's most celebrated new poets. 'Um, married,' he said. 'Lucrezia, I—' A flood of inchoate feelings and unresolved doubts roared through his head.
She looked at him intendy. 'You're still the crazy one, Niccolo - and now you come?'
'If it does not inconvenience,' he said.
Little more than a child before, she had now firmed to a woman of grace and looks, and was just as much in possession of her own soul.
'Niccolo ... it is Carnivale, not s' good to have heavy thoughts now, carissimi nonni?’ A shadow passed over her face. Then she said impulsively, 'Come, we shall 'ave chocolate at Florian's.'
'It is Carnival. I don' know where he is,' she said impatiently. 'We go in th' gondola Carradini.'
The family gondola waited by the small landing platform at the water frontage of the house, varnished black with a shuttered cabin in the centre. Renzi allowed himself to be handed aboard and the two gondoliers took position noiselessly, gazing discreedy into the middle distance.
Renzi and Lucrezia settled into the cushions of the closed cabin, her features softened to a tender loveliness by the little lamp. The craft pushed off with a gentle sway. Firmly, she reached across and pulled the louvred shutters closed, and then, just as purposefully, drew him to her.
They stepped ashore arm in arm into the magnificence of St Mark's Square, alive with excitement and colour, light and sequins, noise and mystery. There was an electric charge in the air, a feverish intensity that battered deliciously at the senses. They passed by the looming campanile into the arched colonnades of the square,
Renzi's spirits willingly responding to the vibrancy of the atmosphere.
Caffe Florian had, if anything, increased in splendour. Outrageously clothed exquisites bowed to each other under glittering chandeliers hanging from polished wood panelling, their subdued voices occasionally broken through with silver}' laughter. Renzi and Lucrezia sat together in a red padded alcove.
'Questo mi piace,' Renzi breathed, but Lucrezia held her silence until the chocolate came.
Renzi did his best to pull himself together. 'Tell me, what of this Buonaparte? Does he threaten Venice, do you think?'
She went rigid: he could see her eyes darting furtively behind the mask, scanning the room. 'Niccolo — pliss, never say again!' She lowered her mask so he could see her seriousness. 'Venezia, it is not like you remember. It is dangerous times now, ver' dangerous!' He could hardly hear her soft words, and bent forward. She smiled, popped a sweetmeat into his mouth, and continued in a whisper, affecting to impart endearments: 'The Council of Ten have th' Inquisition, an army of spies, look everywhere for th' Jacobin.' Renzi could sense her tension behind the gay smile. 'Ever'where — you never know who.'
She slid towards him, close enough that her words could not be intercepted. 'Carlo, he brings wine from Friuli, he says French are all over nort' Italy like locust, nothing can stop them, not even th' Austrians.' Staring at her drink, she went on, 'Montenotte, Lodi — that Buonaparte, he will not be contented with this. And he advance ver' fast — an' all the Veneqani think to do is more spies — and Carnivale’
Renzi caught her eye. 'As it's said, "Venetians don't taste their pleasures, they swallow them whole"!'
She giggled, then sobered again. 'Niccolo — don' you trust anyone, not anyone!'
'Not even you?' he teased.
'You must trust me,' she said seriously. Then she cupped her chin in her hands and looked up at him. 'Il giramondo — you are ver' strong now, I feel it.'
The warmth of the evening fell away in layers, and the cold reality of a grey, sea-tossed world penetrated even this conviviality, drawing him back. Reminiscences, hard memories pushed themselves into his consciousness, building a pressure of unresolved forces that he knew he must face.
‘Cara Lucrezia, ti voglio appassionatamente, but I fear I'm no fit companion this night...'
'I understan' this, Niccolo.' She regarded him closely. 'What diavolo rides on your back, God know.'
'Lucrezia, can we talk somewhere?'
'Th' gondola,' she responded, and they rose and left. The gondoliers were on hand, as if by magic, and the chill of the night was kept at bay within the comfort of the cabin.
'You have changed, Niccolo — I don' know,' she said tenderly, plucking at his waistcoat as if in doubt of its exotic origins. A wave of feeling broke: he would tell everything, whatever the cost.
He said the words and, looking into her eyes, saw pity, compassion — and insight. She did understand — the transformation of a careless youth to a morally sensitive adult through the harrowing suicide of the son of a farmer, ruined by an Act of Enclosure enforced by his family; the conviction and, more importantly, commitment to a course of action in atonement.
'My sentence is exile from my world, at sea. The problem lies in that since then I have grown to respect, admire and, if you can believe it, in some ways prefer the purity of the brotherhood of the sea.'
Renzi had found opportunities for the deepest considerations of the intellect in the long watches of the night, and he could bring to memory many a conversation with Kydd that he would never admit" had settled his own doubts as much as his friend's.
Her hand crept out to seize his. 'But this is not your world, Niccolo,' she whispered.
A lump rose in Renzi's throat. 'I know it. There are times—' How could he show how much he was torn? The sturdy honesty of deep-sea mariners, their uncomplicated courage and direct speaking had to be contrasted with their deep ignorance of the world, their lacking of subtlety to the point of obtuseness. But such a degree of friendship, won in adversity and tested in perils, was never to be found on land where daily trial of character was not a way of life.
He tried to explain - her intent expression encouraged him. He went on to describe the satisfactions: the change in world-view when the horizon was never a boundary but an opportunity, not the same daily prospect and limit but a broad highway to other lands, other experiences. And the different value for time at sea, when discourse could be followed to its own true end, the repose of mind resulting from the realisation that time aboard ship would not be hurried, varied, dissipated.
The harsh conditions of his exile compared with his privileged upbringing were not the primary concern — a monk would understand the self-denial involved. In fact, as he examined it, explained it, there came a clarifying and focusing.
Kydd. Without any doubt, Kydd's friendship had saved his sanity and made possible the enduring of his sentence. Renzi knew his own mind needed nurture and satisfaction or it would suffer a sterile withering, and he had found both in Kydd's intelligence and level-headed thinking. And they had shared so much together — what they had shared!
But when Kydd had been in another ship he was robbed of this: he was in an island of himself, no one to relieve the days with insight and an acquisitive mind. It was in those dull, repetitive times that the full hardship of what he had taken on was brought to bear. The lower deck of a man-o'-war was plain, unadorned, uncomplicated, but — and this was the cruel, plain fact - it was not the place for an educated and sensitive man.
'Lucrezia, pray help me. My sentence of exile is for five years, and its course is nearly run. So do I — must I — return then to my family? Leave the sea and my friends — my true friends . . .' It was harder to bear, now it had been given voice.
The gondola rocked gendy in the calm of the lagoon, Lucrezia watching him calmly. But she had no hesitation: 'Niccolo, ragazzo, you know th' answer to that,' she said gently, stroking his hair. 'You have serve your sentence, you can be proud, but you are a gentleman, not low-born. Go to your family an' start life again.'
It was devastating — not what she had said, which was unanswerable, but the discovery that he should have known it would have to finish in this way. A great upwelling of emotion came, sudden and deluging. He covered his face as sobs turned to tears - but in the hot rush a cool voice remained to tell him that this was a final, irreversible decision: before the end of the year he would no longer be in the harsh world of the common seaman.
Kydd picked himself up, more dismayed than hurt. He had always admired his friend's fine intellect, but now he had serious doubts about the balance of his mind. Yet to look for him in this libertine madness was not possible — more to the point was how to steer a course back to their lodgings.
He remembered the big marble bridge. 'Th' Rialto, if y' please,' he asked passers-by, and in this way soon found himself on familiar territory. A quick hunting about found their doss-house.
The Swede looked up curiously. 'Where's Renzi?' A swirl of smoke and coarse shouting eddied from the dark recesses inside, but Larsson was content to stay with his garba.
'He's comin' back,' Kydd snapped. *Renzi knows his duty, ye'll find.' That much would be certain: if anything in this world was a fixed quantity it was that Renzi would fulfil his duty.
But Renzi did not return that night. Kydd waited in the dark loft, hearing the strange sounds of the Venetian night. He slept fitfully.
Minutes before their due reporting time to Lieutenant Griffith, Renzi returned. He gave no explanation, but seemed far more in control — yet distant, unreachable, in a way Kydd had never seen him before.
'We meet the agent at the Rialto,' Renzi said, leading them down to the steps close to the bridge. Amati was waiting for them, and did not reply to their greeting. A gondola threaded through the water towards them, its cabin closed. They stepped aboard and it pushed off to the middle of the Grand Canal.
'Report!' The order came from the anonymous dark of the cabin.
'All quiet, sir,' was Renzi's cool reply, 'but I have heard reliably that the French are at the approaches to Venice, no more than a few miles. It is to be reasonably assumed, sir, that Sir Alastair has been unfortunately taken in trying to get through their lines.'
'Where did you hear this?'
'From ... I have no reason to doubt my source, sir.'
There was no immediate reply. Then, 'Venice is a sovereign republic — the French would never dare to violate her territory. We are safe here for the moment. We shall wait a little longer, I think.'
Renzi frowned. 'Sir, the French commander, General Buonaparte, is different from the others. He's bold and intelligent, wins by surprise and speed. I don't think we can underestimate—'
'Renzi, you are impertinent — this is not a decision for a common sailor. We stay.'
'Aye aye, sir,' Renzi acknowledged carefully.
'You will report here at the same time tomorrow. If you get word of Sir Alastair, I am to be informed immediately.'
The gondola reached the landing place, and they disembarked. With barely a muttered excuse Renzi was gone - who knew where? Kydd found himself growing resentful and angry. They were on a mission of considerable importance, they were in danger, and Renzi had deserted them.
He growled at the gawping Larsson to keep with him as they headed back to their quarters, then saw what he was looking at. In a chance alignment of the dark streets, the bright outer lagoon was visible, and at that moment a vision was passing, surrounded by a swarm of lesser craft, a great vessel of dazzling gold and scarlet, moving trimly under the impulse of fifty oars.
‘Il Bucintoro!’ a passing onlooker said, with pride, noticing their fascination.
The galley glided grandly out of sight, leaving Kydd doubtful that he had actually seen what his senses told him he had.
Undoubtedly there were more such sights and experiences lying in wait all around, enough to have his shipmates lost in envy when he later recounted his adventures. But the French were allegedly just a few miles away, and their duty was plain. He turned reluctantly towards their noisome lodgings.
The next morning Renzi arrived to meet them at the appointed place, this time with serious news. 'Friuli is invaded. Buonaparte has stormed into Carinthia to the north, and his troops have bypassed Venice to strike south.'
'Then we are surrounded,' a low voice said cautiously from the gondola's dark cabin. 'Where did you hear this?'
'From traders that have business in the interior, sir. And you may believe they are—' 'That will be all, Renzi.' 'Sir—'
'We leave. Now.' There was decision and relief in the officer's voice. 'Sir Alastair has obviously been taken. We must depart, our duty done. Mr Amati, do you please engage passage for the four of us out of Venice immediately? You men muster abreast the Rialto bridge in one hour with your dunnage.'
This time Renzi stayed, fetching his small sea-bag from the loft and waiting in the shadows with them. 'May I know where you've been, Nicholas?' Kydd said gravely.
'No.' Renzi's eyes were stony and fixed on the opposite side of the Grand Canal.
'I'd take it kindly should ye tell me more o' this grand place, m' friend.'
There was no response from Renzi. Then his eyes flicked to Kydd and away again. 'Later,' he muttered.
Kydd brooded. Something was seriously troubling his friend. They should be in no real danger — the French wouldn't dare to interfere in such a noble city so all they had to do was leave. But they would run from Venice and return to Gibraltar without the glory of a daring rescue . . . He tried to bring to mind Emily's face, but it was shadowed, overlain by the incredible events and sights he'd so recently witnessed. His wandering thoughts were interrupted — a piece of paper had been passed to Renzi.
'This is from L'tenant Griffith. We are to report to this warehouse at once.' He led the way towards the waterfront. Just before they emerged on to the quay area they stopped. Renzi stepped forward and banged on the decrepit door of a small warehouse. It opened cautiously and they were pulled inside.
As their eyes grew used to the dark, they saw Dandolo, pacing nervously up and down. There were two others, sitting on the floor, heads down, exhausted. Kydd's nose tickled at the pungent scent of the warehouse, which lay heavy on the air — ginger, spices, tobacco.
'Where iss your officer?' Dandolo pressed. As if in answer, there was a rattling at the door and Griffith stepped in, breathless.
'The same,' whispered one of the men on the floor. 'Good God! Sir, you must be — but we have you in time.'
Dandolo intervened. 'We agreed . .. ?'
'Indeed.' Griffith fumbled in his coat, and withdrew a cloth-wrapped cylinder. He handed it to Dandolo. It was broken open expertly and a spill of dull gold coins filled Dandolo's hand. He grinned with satisfaction. 'We are leaving Venice. Do you wish to claim the protection of His Majesty also?'
Dandolo's eyes creased. 'No. I have my plans.'
'Is there a way to inform Mr Amati where we are?' Griffith asked.
Dandolo paused. 'If that iss what you wan'.'
Griffith crossed to Leith. 'Sir, Lieutenant Griffith, third of Bacchante frigate, and three seamen. We are sent to remove you from Venice.'
'Thank you,' Leith said equably, 'and this is my man. He has stayed with me since the other side of the Alps.
What is the situation, if you please?' Before Griffith could answer, Leith added, 'Be aware that the French are advancing with celerity and all the determination of a strong sea tide. There is no time to be lost, sir.'
'Our evacuation is in hand as we speak, sir. Our agent is procuring passage for us by any means, and I expect him back by the hour.'
'Very good. I will not speak of food and drink - these can wait until we are on board. Now, if you please, be so good as to allow us a period of sleep. We are sorely tried.'
There was nothing to do except wait for Amati in decorous silence. Renzi lay on a sack and closed his eyes, but Kydd could not rest. It was expecting a lot of the agent to delay his own hopes of safety for their sake, however high his expected reward. Perhaps he had already slipped away, leaving them to wait in vain for their passage out.
It seemed hours, but Amati returned. Kydd felt for the little man as he slipped in noiselessly. 'I can no' find a passage,' he said defiantly.
'What?' Griffith jumped to his feet.
'My dear sir, the man returned, did he not?' Leith said wearily. 'Pray tell us, what is the difficulty?' he asked Amati.
'The French, they take Chioggia, Malamocco. Now they ha' control all gate to th' lagoon. No ship can lif. None.' He looked up wearily. 'No one wan' to try.'
Griffith stared at Amati. 'So, we have a problem.'
No one spoke.
Renzi's expression eased to a half-smile, and in the breathless hush he said, 'Sir, you are mindful that we are English —
'Of course I do — you try my patience, Renzi!'
'- and therefore we shall probably be yielded up by the Venetians as a placating move to the French—'
'Enough! Hold your tongue, you impertinent rascal!'
'—who will without doubt understand us to be here as spies, to be executed perhaps?'
At his words there was only a grim silence. It was broken by a dry chuckle from Leith. 'Just so. Nothing less than the truth, I would have thought.' He glanced keenly at Renzi. 'Please go on.'
'Sir. Our logical course is to hide among the people but, sadly, I fear we would make poor Italians. Disguise is impossible — we would be discovered out of hand. I feel we must find another solution.'
'They gotta catch us fust. Let 'em come!' Larsson challenged.
'With no weapons of any kind?' Everyone present knew that an armed party discovered ashore in Venice would have been an intolerable provocation to the Serene Republic. 'No. I fancy we are at hazard to a degree.'
A rattling started at the door. Kydd and Larsson hastily took position at each side, ready for the final act. The door opened, but instead of soldiers there was a small figure, fetchingly arrayed in a Columbine costume, her face hidden by a white mask.
'What in heaven—' spluttered Griffith.
'You fools!' Lucrezia said, dropping her mask and sparing Renzi a withering look. 'Why you still 'ere?'
Leith picked up on the look. 'Your acquaintance, Mr Renzi?'
.Renzi ignored the expression of sudden realisation on Kydd's face. 'Signora Lucrezia Carradini, Sir Alastair Leith.'
She acknowledged him warily, sizing up the littie party. Her eyes rested on Amati. "Oo is zis?' she demanded. Renzi began to explain, but Amati's muttered Italian seemed to satisfy her.
She looked away for a moment. 'To hide all you, zis will be deeficult. It may be long time, the French will no' go away soon.' It seemed natural that she was taking charge of their fate: her strong features and resolute bearing made it so.
The men waited. She looked once towards the door then spoke decisively. 'Here I say I store my cargo, a ver' valuable load, to wait the ship. I send men to guard it, no one interfere wi' you now.'
Her mask went up as she prepared to leave. 'I will fin' you a ship, jus' be patient. And never show yourselfs.' She turned to Renzi. 'You are ze compradore, you worry of its safety, you come back an' check on it many times. But now you mus' come wi' me.'
The spicy rankness of the warehouse bore on the spirit but, sailor-fashion, the men turned to, making the best of it. Hammocks were fashioned, screens were rigged and a 'mess area' squared away as clean as possible. They tried to ignore the sounds from outside, the chains drawn across the door, the unknown muffled words.
Renzi returned at nightfall with food and drink concealed in a chest, as if an addition to the cargo. He did not volunteer conversation, and the others did not press him. He left quickly.
Leith spent his time with the naval officer, leaving the two sailors to themselves. There was not much conversation in Larsson, and Kydd found himself on edge.
After a restless night and a quick dawn visit from Renzi they had no choice other than to resign themselves to another day of tedium. It was well into the morning when Kydd's senses pricked an alert. 'There's somethin' amiss,' he said. 'Listen .. .'
'I hear nothing,' said Griffith irritably.
'That is m' point, sir. There's nothin' going on - everythin's stopped.'
'He's right,' said Leith.
The troubling stillness continued into the afternoon.
'One o' their papist festivals cleared 'em from their duties,' was Griffith's opinion.
Drily, Leith disagreed. 'I rather fancy they'd make more noise, more bells and crowds.'
'Then maybe the French have entered?'
'Without protest, cannon fire? Their soldiers would certainly have let the world know if they had, I can assure you.' Leith stood up and paced about, the first sign of unease Kydd had seen him display. 'I don't like this - at all.'
By late afternoon, it was obvious that something was seriously out of kilter. And Renzi had not come with their food.
'We have to know what is afoot. Pray stand by me, you men.' Leith crossed to the doors and shook them sharply for attention.
'Sir, the woman—'
'We must be ready to take action - of any kind.' There was no response from the outside. Leith shook the door again. Kydd tried to squint through the cracks, but could see no one.
'Her men have gone. We are forgotten.'
Griffith stood suddenly. 'We have to move. Kydd, climb aloft to the upper storeroom and see if there is an exit for us there.' Kydd swung up into the darkness of the partitioned loft above, but found that the warehouse was proofed against thieves and had no discernible openings.
Larsson was tasked to look for a sizeable timber for use as a battering ram on the stout doors. Then the chain rattled on the outside. It fell away and Renzi thrust himself in, pulling the door to hastily.
'The gravest news!' He was breathless and looked weary. He let a bundle fall, which Kydd recognised as his sea-bag.
'We have hours only before the worst and — I — I cannot believe what has taken place!' Renzi's expression struck a deep chill in his listeners.
'And that is?' Leith's tone was steely.
Renzi turned. 'Venice is no more! A thousand years of civilisation gone! Finished!'
Griffith snorted. 'Get on with it, you ninny, make your report.'
Renzi ignored him, staring at Leith, whose grave face suggested that he knew what was to come. 'The people have been betrayed. The Council of Ten - the Doge — have failed their citizens. They have been deluded, bullied. It is all over for Venice.'
He paused and looked away. 'The true situation has been concealed. What has happened is that the French general, Buonaparte, has cleverly turned an enemy, Austria, to an ally. How? He cannot strike southward into Italy until he has pacified this hostile country in his rear. So he pacifies it in another way. He gives it Venice.'
'Venice is neutral.'
'This Buonaparte is truly a genius at war, but as ruthless and unscrupulous as the very devil himself. Yes, Venice is neutral, but he has taken every excuse to paint her the aggressor, the tyrant. Just two weeks ago his commander, Junot, apparendy stormed before the Council of Ten with a personal letter from him containing unacceptable demands. Today—' Renzi's voice changed almost to a whisper. 'Today the Doge Lodovico called a Grand Council. It was the first the people knew of the danger — they believed themselves neutral in this war. A new letter was read out from General Buonaparte. In it he said that the old ways were to be swept away, a new age of revolution was upon them, and if they objected, he would not be held accountable for the consequences.
'While they deliberated, a despatch was received from their own consiglieri militari that there is French artillery, many guns, ringing the lagoon and ready to reduce Venice to a ruin. The Doge asks for a final vote of submission to the French and suicide for the Venetian state. What he did not reveal was that their spies had reported that, not two weeks earlier, a secret peace was signed at Leoben between Austria and France. The price asked was Venice and her decrepit empire.'
Renzi continued quietly, 'The vote was taken in indecent haste, passed, and the nobiluomi of Venice fell over each other to get away, turning their backs on their birthright and abandoning their noble obligations to save their skins. Gentlemen, the Serenissima is no more!'
The brooding quiet lay heavy and ominous. When the people of Venice had digested the events, there would be a reaction. Even now far-off shouts could be heard. The French would be forming up to march in, whether to civil chaos or a humbled populace it didn't matter: the end was the same. They only had hours to decide what to do.
'You seem very well informed, Renzi, for a foremast hand,' snarled Griffith.
'The lady Carradini, whom I knew — before, is well placed in the highest of the land. You can be assured there are few secrets she does not know.'
'And tells you?'
Renzi's wintry smile was weary. 'She has a tendre for me. This is not for us to debate. What is more at issue is the next few hours.'
'Have a care, Renzi, you are still under discipline, even here.'
Leith stirred. 'I care not for your nautical niceties, gentlemen. Now, are you about to leave us again, Mr Renzi?'
Kydd realised the implication of the sea-bag: Renzi might have had a chance to get away but he had chosen to see things through with his friends. 'Thank ye, Nicholas,' he said softly.
The dusty silence was broken by a tiny sound, a wispy slither. The pale edge of a paper appeared under the door, but when Kydd reached it there was no sign of anyone. 'Here, m' friend, it's all Dutch t' me,' Kydd said, passing it to Renzi.
'Thank you. It says we are to stay here until after dark. Then we will receive a visitor, whom we may account a welcome one. I recognise the hand,' Renzi added gravely.
'We wait?' Griffith ignored Renzi, addressing Leith directly.
'Have you an alternative in mind, sir?'
As evening approached the gloom in the musty warehouse deepened. Muffled shouts and random disorder erupted at intervals, a scuffle breaking out not far from the door. The situation was apparently resolved with a grunting, despairing cry, then silence.
There was a feeble oil lantern in the spaces by the wall, but it served to keep the darkness at bay.
Kydd could hardly bear the inactivity, the inability to do anything. He yearned for the lift and fall of a deck under his feet, but realised that, with the stranglehold now established by the French, it was probable he would never again know the sensation.
The darkness outside was absolute when their visitor arrived. A hurried double knock and hoarse, 'Il giramondo — ehi!’ Dressed in a black cloak, the man kept his face averted in its hood. 'Dove il ufficiale di marina inglese?’ he asked tensely, the eyes glittering within the hood.
'He wants the English naval officer,' Renzi said.
Griffith stepped forward to a quarterdeck brace and said crisply, 'I am Lieutenant Griffith of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Bacchante'
The man hesitated, then seemed to come to a decison. He threw off his hood and snapped smartly to attention. 'Tenenfe di vascello Bauducco - Paolo Bauducco.'
'Lieutenant Paolo Bauducco,' Renzi murmured, and in turn made an appropriate introduction of Lieutenant Griffith.
'Prendendo in considerations la grandest della marina inglese . . .'
'The stream of passionate Italian appeared theatrical in the drab confines of the warehouse, the weak lanternlight picking up the occasional flash of rank and decorations under the cloak.
Renzi held up his hands to pause the flow, and tried to put across the officer's plea. 'Er, it seems that, in deference to the regard he has for the Royal Navy, he wishes to put forward a proposition.'
Griffith frowned, but Leith showed instant interest. Bauducco resumed, his ardour transparent.
'Ah, he is a loyal Venetian, and today he was profoundly ashamed of the perfidy of the Doge and his ministers. He learned as well that the Arsenale, the famous naval dockyard and all the ships of Venice, are to be turned over to General Buonaparte.'
Bauducco's voice swelled in anger.
'This is intolerable. It seems ... if I understand him aright, that there are many men in the Venetian service who feel as he does.' Renzi cocked his head, as if in doubt of what he was hearing, and continued carefully, 'He goes on to say, sir, that this night he and his men intend to rise up against his captain and carry his vessel to sea. Would he be right to put before them that his vessel — a xebec only, but well armed — would then be taken into the sea service of Great Britain against the French?'
There was a disbelieving silence. Griffith recovered first. 'Tell him that a British frigate at this moment lies to seaward, and we have but to reach her — and tell him too, damn it, that his offer is handsomely accepted.'
The hours passed in a fever of waiting. They had been warned that when the time came they were not to delay an instant: there could be no turning back. But they were safe where they were — when they broke for freedom anything might be waiting for them out there in the night.
The lantern had sputtered and died from lack of oil, and they had only the shadows of men and terse orders to assure them that deliverance was at hand. They emerged from their refuge, stepping warily behind the unknown emissary, past shuttered and silent buildings, sinister by their very quiet.
In the open, noises, of disorder and signs of a gathering tumult were much clearer on the night air, sounds that were both distant and near, chilling in their portent of chaos to come. They hurried along the claustrophobic streets in a tight group, this way and that, until they reached yet another of the small humped bridges.
On the other side was a rich gondola, its varnished black sides glittering in the illumination of a single street-light. A pair of gondoliers stood tense and ready. The party tumbled in, and packed into the cabin, falling against each other in their haste. The gondoliers poled off, but not before Renzi, raising the slats of the cabin window to catch a last sight, noticed a figure detach itself from the shadows and a gloved hand lift in silent farewell.
The motion of the craft was purposeful and steady, the men in the cabin having no difficulty in visualising its track along the narrow canals, then the straight course and lively movement of the open lagoon.
The regular creak and thrust of the gondoliers ceased unexpectedly, leaving the gondola to an aimless bobbing. Renzi peered out. 'We're in the lagoon, more to the south, and off the Arsenale — I can see the entrance.' This would be where the xebec would break out, through the twin towers of the gate from the internal basin and through the channel to open waters — if the rising were successful.
Few craft were abroad that could be seen in the rising moon, and a motionless gondola was a dangerous curiosity. It couldn't be helped: if attention was diverted to the water by some incident their fate would be sealed. This was the Carradini gondola and Lucrezia would have paid the gondoliers well for their night's work — but enough?
Renzi checked the flint and steel he had been given. It was essential that they attract the attention of the xebec at the right time or they would be left behind in its desperate flight. It was time, but there was no sign of insurrection or riot in the brighdy lit dockyard.
Lifting more of the slats, he scanned the lagoon. At night there was no reason to sail about, the wharves had no men to work cargo and no one to account for its movement. A couple of other gondolas, far off, moving at speed, and some anonymous low river-boats were all that were in sight.
Then from round the northern point of Venice came a larger vessel, a lugger. It altered course directly towards them.
'Trouble,' he muttered, and alerted the others. Their die was cast: there was no way they could make it back into the maze of canals before the lugger closed with them.
'Somethin' happenin'.' Kydd had been watching the dockyard. Renzi snatched a look. They could not see into the basin, but he could have sworn that a gunflash briefly lit up the front of one of the buildings.
The lugger came on purposefully. But there were men at the Arsenale entrance — and then the bows of a vessel emerged into the channel, indistinct and with no sail hoisted. Renzi hesitated; if this was not the xebec, their one chance . . . but he could just make out the three counter-raked masts of such a vessel — and not only that: there was musket firing.
This was their salvation — if he got the light going. Kydd held the wooden tube close, the grainy fuse close to Renzi's flint. Renzi struck it once, twice. No fat spark leaped across. Again — this time a faint orange speck.
The xebec won through to open water; it was under oars, but a triangular sail was jerking up from the deck. It angled over.
'For Christ's sake!' The strangled oath had come from Griffith. The flint must have got wet, and there was nothing for it but to keep trying, hard, vicious hits. A bigger spark, but it missed the fuse. Renzi steadied and struck again. The spark leaped, and landed squarely on the fuse with an instant orange fizz. Kydd stepped out into the well of the gondola, and the light caught, a pretty golden shower.
The xebec immediately lay over towards them, but the lugger would reach them well before it could. But then the lugger unexpectedly abandoned its pursuit and resumed its course along the foreshore of St Mark's.
As the xebec slashed towards them, Kydd laughed. 'It thinks th' shebek is takin' us in!'
It was the work of moments for the sailors to tumble over the low gunwale and on to the narrow deck, then turn to heave in Leith and his servant. The two gondoliers scrambled up, leaving their smart black gondola to drift away into the night. It was now clear how Lucrezia had secured their loyalty. The lump in Renzi's throat tightened.
Instinctively they made their way aft, to the narrow poop where Bauducco stood searching for signals. 'Dobbi amo stare attenti alia catena’ he muttered.
Renzi heard the warning, and told the others. 'It seems the lagoon entrance to the open sea is chained. If this is so, I fear we cannot break through it in this light vessel.'
The dark hummock of land that was Rochetta loomed, and a pair of lanterns appeared on the shore. They danced up and down energetically — Bauducco whooped with joy.
'The chain is evidently lowered for us,' Renzi murmured, and the xebec passed through to the darkness of the sea beyond.
They were free.
The noon rendezvous had been made, the passengers transferred and Bacchante's crew made whole again. Now the xebec was curving in a respectful swash under their lee as they set course for Gibraltar, a lieutenant and midshipman of the Royal Navy aboard this newest addition to King George's fleet.
Kydd saw Renzi at the fore-shrouds, looking back at the wasp-like lines of the xebec, and wandered over. The last few days had been too intense, too contrasted, and he needed to make sense of them — but what was bedevilling Renzi, threatening the friendship of years? 'So it's all over f'r Venice?'
'I believe so,' Renzi responded. His hand twisted the shroud. 'Venice is old, ancient, and now extinct as a military power. That is all.'
The little frigate stumbled to a wave and recovered in a hiss of foam. Kydd grabbed at a rope and shot an exasperated look at Renzi. His stiff manner perplexed him: he had done nothing to cause it that he could think of, and it had been the same since Gibraltar. 'Nicholas, if there's anything I've done that troubles ye, then—'
'No!' Renzi's fierce response was unsettling. 'No. Not you,' he went on, in a more controlled tone. 'At the least, not in the proximate cause.'
'I will tell you — as my friend. As my dear friend.'
'Nicholas?' said Kydd, with a numbing premonition.
'And as one who I know will honour my — position.' He composed himself. 'This, then, is the essence. You will know that my presence on the lower deck of a man-o'-war is by choice. It is the self-sentence I have assumed to relieve my conscience of a family sin. And you may believe that it has been hard for me, at times very hard — not the sea life, you understand, which has its attractions, but that which bears so dire on the spirit.'
It had always been a given, an unspoken acceptance that Renzi would never allow his origins to prevail over his convictions, never let the harsh, sometimes crude way of life on the lower deck affect his fine mind and acute sensibilities.
Renzi continued: 'I mean no derogation of the seamen I have met, no imputation of brutishness — in fact, since making their close acquaintance, these are men I own myself proud to know, to call friend. No, it is the absence of something that to me is proving an insupportable burden - the blessed benison of intellectual companionship.'
His eyes lifted to Kydd's face. 'Those years ago, when we met for the first time, it was as if you were a gift from the gods to help me bear my private burden. Now, it seems, the exigencies of the service have taken this solace from me, and I spend my days at sea in isolation, in a bleakness of spirit, day in, day out. The fo'c'sle is not the place for a child of learning. In short, my dear friend, the five years of my exile reaches its end in December and I shall not be continuing this life beyond that point.'
Wordless, Kydd stared at him. He had no idea that Renzi had valued their friendship on that plane; he had gone along with the Diderot and the Rousseau to experience pleasure at the display of fine logic and meticulous reasoning as well as for the evident pleasure it gave his friend. As Renzi's words penetrated, he became aware that he had gained so much himself by the friendship: his own mind had been opened to riches of the intellect, he had glimpsed life in polite society, and now it was over. He would become like so many fine old seamen he knew, the very best kind of deep-sea mariner, but rough-hewn, without the graces, inarticulate.
His mind struggled to adjust. So much in his world would no longer be there, but Renzi's was a fine and noble mind and it had no place on the gundeck of a ship of war. 'Nicholas, you'll—'
'It is quite resolved. It will be so.'
'Then — then you'll go back to y' folks?' Kydd said, trying to hide his sinking spirits.
Renzi paused. 'I suppose I will. That is the logical conclusion.' They both gazed out on the blue-green waters. 'You will always be welcome, dear fellow, should you be passing by.'
'Aye. An' if y' wants t' see how the Kydd school is progressin' . . .
* * *
Their keel ploughed a white furrow through the empty cobalt blue of the Mediterranean. Renzi had become ever more agreeable, courteously debating as in the old days, delicately plucking a great truth from a morass of contradictions for Kydd's admiration. They mourned the passing of Venice, the chaos of war now engulfing the world, the irrelevance of the individual in the face of colossal hostile forces.
All too soon they sighted the great Rock of Gibraltar rearing up ahead. Kydd would rejoin his ship there and face his fate: a shameful horsewhipping at the hands of a jealous husband. It all seemed so forlorn. His feelings were now a dying ember of what was before but he would see through what had to come as a man.
Bacchante glided into Rosia Bay, striking her sails smardy and losing no time in sending her important guest ashore. Achilles was not at anchor, and Kydd learned that she was in Morocco, at Tetuan for watering.
The mate-of-the-watch had little to do in harbour, and after Renzi had seen to the brief ceremony attending the captain going ashore, he reflected on what had come to pass. There was no doubt that he had made the right decision regarding his future: he had served his sentence fully and he could take satisfaction not only in this but in the fact that he had been not unsuccessful in his adopted profession. Yet the thought of returning to his inheritance, to the confining, predictable and socially circumscribed round, was a soul-deadening prospect after vast seascapes, far shores and the sensory richness of a sea life.
He reviewed the years of friendship he had enjoyed. Not just the times of shared danger, but golden memories of a night watch under the stars far out in the Pacific, with a silver moonpath glittering. Or when he had mischievously taken a contrary stand on some matter of philosophy simply to have Kydd find within himself "some sturdy rejoinder, some expression of his undeniable strength of character.
He burned at the remembrance of the logical outworking of one line of philosophy that, but for Kydd, would have seen him end his days in the savagery of a South Sea island. Other instances came to mind, the totality of which led to an inevitable conclusion.
In his core being, he must still be the tempestuous soul he always had been, and his carefully nurtured rationality was an insufficient control. He needed Kydd's strength, his straight thinking to keep him stable and — dare he say? — the regard that Kydd obviously had for him. Now it was no longer there, only a lowering bleakness.
Then, breaking through his thoughts, he saw a figure slowly emerge on deck from the main hatchway. Rigged once more as a master's mate in breeches and full coat, Kydd's face was pale and his movements deliberate. He came aft to report, as was his duty.
'Steppin' ashore, Nicholas.'
'Er, I wish you well of—'
'That's kind in ye,' Kydd replied. Both men knew there was nothing Renzi could do in a matter of honour: the kindest thing was to be absent when the inevitable final scene took place.
'Then I'll be away,' Kydd said. He held his head high as he stepped over the bulwarks and down to the boat.
It stroked lazily towards Ragged Staff steps; Kydd did not look back. Renzi watched until he was out of sight. A vindictive husband, who wanted to take a full measure of revenge, could make Kydd pay a terrible price for his foolishness.
Kydd returned before the end of Renzi's duty watch. The warm dusk had also seen Achilles put back into Gibraltar. 'Nicholas, do ye have time?'
Renzi's relief was already on deck so they went to the main-shrouds, out of earshot of the one or two on deck aft. Renzi looked keenly at Kydd.
'It was th' damnedest thing, Nicholas,' Kydd said, in a low voice. He looked around suspiciously, but no one was anywhere near. 'M' letter - y' remember? Well, seems that Consuela - that's Mrs Mulvany's maid I gave m' letter to — she gets it all wrong 'n' thinks it's her the letter's for, there bein' no names in it a-tall, an' there she is, waitin' for me when I gets ashore.'
'So you've been spared the whip?' Renzi said drily.
Kydd coloured. 'I have - but it's to cost me five silver dollars to buy the letter back,' he said, 'and when I went t' Emily's house, her husband was in, invited me t' dinner, even.' His face fell. 'But when I wanted t' see Emily - say my farewells afore we return to England — seems she was unwell an' couldn't see me.'
'Unfortunate,' murmured Renzi. Then he straightened. 'You're sailing tonight.'
'F'r England,' Kydd replied, but there was no happiness in his voice.
'Bacchante goes to Lisbon where I rejoin my ship,' Renzi said. 'I — I'm not sanguine that we shall meet again soon, my dear friend.' It were best the parting were not prolonged.
'Ye could be sent back t' Portsmouth f'r a docking,' Kydd said forlornly.
'Yes, that's true,' Renzi replied sofdy. "Thomas, be true to yourself always, brother, and we shall see each other — some time.'
'An' you as well, Nicholas. So it's goodbye, m' friend.' The handshake lingered, then Kydd turned and went.
Achilles stood out into the broad Atlantic, questing for the trade westerlies, the reliable streams of air that blew ceaselessly across thousands of miles of ocean to provide a royal highway straight to England.
She soon found them, and shaped course northward. The winds so favourable on her larboard quarter also formed a swell that came in, deep and regular, under her old-fashioned high stern. Up and up it rose, angling the rest of the ship over to starboard and steeply down into the trough ahead. Then, when the swell reached the mid-point of the vessel, her bow rose, bowsprit clawing the sky, and her stern fell precipitously away while, with a sudden jerk, she rolled back to larboard.
To a seaman it was instinctive: the fine sailing in these regular seas was easy, the motion predictable. The only concern was that the winds might die away to a tedious flat amble.
These spirited seas saw Achilles at her best, an energetic, seething wake stretching away astern, flecks of foam driven up by her bluff bows flying aft to wet the lips of the watch-on-deck with salt, the bright sun casting complex hypnotically moving shadows of sails and rigging on the decks.
But there were those aboard who did not appreciate the Atlantic Ocean in springtime. Huddled over the bulwarks in the waist, sprawling on the foredeck in seasick misery, were the quota men who had exchanged the debtor's jail for a life at sea and others who had never had a say in their fate.
The run north was a time of trial and terror for these land creatures. Forced to overcome their sea-sickness they learned an eternal lesson of the sea: no matter the bodily misery, the task is always seen through to its right true end, then belayed and squared away. There were some who prevailed over their soft origins and won through to become likely sailors, but there were more who would be condemned for ever to be no more than brute labourers of the sea.
By contrast the mariners had their sea ways: the carefully fashioned lids over their oaken grog tankards against slop from the surging movement, the lithe motion as they got up from the mess tables and swayed sinuously along in unconscious harmony with the sea's liveliness, chin-stays down on their tarpaulin hats while aloft. There were an uncountable number of tiny details, the sum of which set on one side those who were true sea-dwellers, who knew the sea as a home and not as a frightening and unnatural perversion of human existence.
In the several days it took to pass northward along the Portuguese and Spanish coasts and make landfall on Finisterre, Achilles tried hard to return to her character as a true man-o'-war after a long and corrosive confinement in port.
'God rot 'em, but they're a pawky lot o' lobcocks!' Poynter, quarter-gunner, glared at the gun's crew standing sweaty and weary after unaccustomed work at training and side tackle on the cold iron.
Kydd could only agree. As master's mate he was essentially deputy to the lieutenant of the gundeck and had a definite interest in excellence at their gunnery. 'Keep 'em at it, Poynter, the only way.'
Hands were stood down from their exercise only when at seven bells the pipe for Tiands to witness punishment' was made. The familiar ritual brought men up into the sunlight to congregate in a sullen mass at the forward end of the quarterdeck. Officers stood on the poop while the gratings were rigged below, in front of the men. Kydd stood between, and to the side.
This was not a happy ship: the combination of a God-fearing captain of dour morals and a boatswain whose contempt for the men found expression in harshness gave litde scope for compassion.
Kydd glanced far out to seaward, where a light frigate was keeping loose station on them for the run to Portsmouth. She made much of being under topsails only to stay with Achilles's all plain sail. Kydd had known service in a frigate, in his eyes a more preferable ship, but they seldom rated a master's mate.
'Same ones,' Cockburn murmured, bringing Kydd's attention back to the flogging and the three pathetic quota men whose crime was running athwart Welby's hawse yet again. The captain's bushy grey eyebrows quivered in the wind, his eyes empty and merciless as he judged and sentenced.
The boatswain's mate waited for the first man to be seized up to the grating, then stepped across. He pulled the lash from the red baize bag and measured up to his task. The marine drummer took position directly above the half-deck, looking enquiringly at Captain Dwyer. In expectation the rustle of whispers and movement stilled - but into the silence came a low sobbing, wretched and hopeless.
'Good God!' Kydd breathed. It was the scraggy little man at the gratings, his pale body heaving in distress.
The boatswain's mate stopped in astonishment, then looked at the captain. Dwyer's eyebrow rose, and he turned to Welby, nodding once.
'Do yer dooty then, Miller.' Welby threw at his mate in satisfaction. The drum thundered, and stopped. In the sickening silence the cat swept down, bringing a hopeless squeal of pain. Kydd looked away. This was achieving nothing, neither individual respect for discipline nor a cohering deference for justice in common.
Lashes were laid on pitilessly. The ship's company watched stolidly: this was the way it was, and no amount of protest could change it.
Kydd scanned the mass of men. He noticed Farnall, the educated quota man who'd had a run-in with Boddy when he first came aboard. Farnall's face showed no indication of disgust or hatred, more a guarded, speculative look.
The contrast between the grim scenes on the upper deck and the fellowship at the noon meal directly afterwards brought a brittle gaiety. Grog loosened tongues and the satisfaction of like company quickly had the crowded mess tables in a buzz of companionable talk and laughter.
Kydd always took a turn along the main deck before his own dinner: after overseeing the issue of grog to the messes he had an implied duty to bear complaints from the men aft, but the real reason was that he enjoyed the warm feeling of comradeship of the sailors at this time, and he could, as well, try the temper of the men by their chatter.
He passed down the centreline of the ship, the sunlight patterning down through the hatchway gratings, the odour of the salt pork and pease filling the close air of the gundeck. Today there were not the lowered voices, glaring eyes or harsh curses that usually preceded trouble, and he guessed that the useless quota hand had gained few friends.
'Jeb.' He nodded at a nuggety able seaman, who grinned back, winking his one remaining eye. No bad blood, it seemed. This was a man Kydd had seen to it drew duty as captain of the heads after he had found him asleep in the tops. He could have taken the man before the captain for a serious offence, but instead he was cleaning the seats of ease each morning before the hands turned to.
As Kydd came abreast the next pair of guns, a seaman got to his feet, hastily bolting a mouthful. It was Boddy. 'First Sunday o' the month, next,' he said significantly.
'Aye,' said Kydd, guessing what was coming.
'An' I claims ter shift mess inter number six st'b'd.'
Kydd pursed his lips. 'They'll have ye?' It was the right of every man to choose his messmates - and they him.
The first Sunday of the month was when moves were made. What was a puzzle was that this was Farnall’s mess, a landman's refuge, and he'd heard that Boddy and Farnall had tangled in Gibraltar. He took out his notebook. 'I'll see first luff knows’ he said.
The indistinct blue-grey bluff of Finisterre left astern, Achilles plunged and rolled on into the Bay of Biscay. Kydd's heart was full: they were bound for England, to his home and hearth for the first time after years that had seen him on a world voyage in a famous frigate, in the Caribbean as a quartermaster in a trim little topsail cutter and a full master's mate in a 64-gun ship-of-the-line. He would return to Guildford a man of some consequence. 'Back to th' fleet - no chance of prize money there,' he said to Cockburn, a grin belying his words.
The day faded to a brisk evening, then night. The frigate had been called to heel, and her lights twinkled and appeared over to larboard in the moonless dusk. Last dog-watchmen were called, hammocks piped down and the watch-on-deck mustered. Achilles sailed into the night, her watch expecting an uneventful time. The frigate's lights faded ahead before midnight, but an alert lookout sighted them an hour or two later on the opposite side, creeping back companionably.
The morning watch was always a tense time, for enemy ships could appear out of the cold dawn light and fall upon an unprepared vessel. As with most naval vessels, Achilles met the dawn at quarters, ready for any eventuality.
A ship-of-the-line with a frigate in company had little to fear, and as the light of day gradually extended, the boredom of waiting saw gun-crews dozing, watch-on-deck relaxed, captain not on deck.
The situation caught everyone by surprise. In the strengthening light the comfortable but indistinct loom of the frigate to starboard resolved by degrees into a much larger ship, further off.
Eastman, the master, snatched the night glass from Binney, the officer-of-the-watch, and sighted on the vessel. 'Blast m' eyes if that ain't a Mongseer!' he choked. The telescope wavered slighdy. 'An' another comin' up fast!'
Binney snatched the glass back. 'The captain,' he snapped, to a gaping midshipman.
Kydd crossed to the ship's side and strained to make out the scene. The larger vessel, ship-rigged and just as large as Achilles, was making no moves towards them. The tiny sails beyond were the other ship that Eastman had spotted.
'Mr Binney?' Dwyer was breathless and in his night attire.
'Sir, our frigate is not in sight. The lights we saw during the night were this Frenchman, who it seems thought ours were, er, some other. There's another of 'em three points to weather.' He handed the telescope over.
The morning light was strengthening rapidly and it was possible to make out details. 'Frenchy well enough,' Dwyer murmured. As he trained the telescope on the ship, her masts began to close, her length foreshorten. 'She's woken up — altering away.'
'Off ter get with the other 'un,' offered someone.
'Yeeesss, I agree,' Dwyer said, and handed back the telescope. 'Bear up, Mr Binney, and we'll go after him.'
He turned to the master. 'What's our offing from the French coast?'
'About twelve leagues, sir.' Near to forty miles; but no ports of consequence near. The captain's eyes narrowed, then he shivered and hurried below.
Kydd clattered down the main hatchway; his place at quarters was the guns on the main deck forward, under Binney. The captain and his officers were now closed up on the quarterdeck, so he and Binney could assume their full action positions.
Low conversations started among the waiting guncrews: a weighing of chances, exchanging of verbal wills, a comparative estimate of sailing speeds — the age-old prelude to battle. Kydd grimaced at the sight of the new hands, nervously chattering and fiddling with ropes. Mercifully the course alteration to eastward was downwind, the complex motion of before was now a gentle rise and fall as she paced the waves. The landmen would at least have a chance of keeping their footing.
One had the temerity to ask Poynter their chances. He stroked his jaw. 'Well, m' lad, seein' as we're outnumbered two ter one, can't say as how they're so rattlin' good.' The man turned pale. 'Should give it away, but the cap'n, bein' a right mauler, jus' won't let 'em go, we has -ter go 'em even if it does fer us . . .' He drew himself up, and scowled thunderously at the man. 'An' you'll be a-doin' of yer dooty right ter the end, now, won't yez?'
Kydd himself was feeling the usual qualms and doubts before an action, and when the man looked away with a sick expression he smiled across at him encouragingly. There was no response.
'Hey, now!' An excited cry came from one of a gun-crew peering out of a gunport. 'She ain't French, she's a Spaniard!'
Kydd pushed his way past the crew and took a look. The larger vessel, stern to, had just streamed the unmistakable red and yellow of the Spanish sea service. At the same time he saw that she had not pulled away — but the other ship was much nearer, as tight to the wind as she could.
Poynter appeared next to Kydd, eagerly taking in the scene. Kydd glanced at him: his glittering, predatory eyes and fierce grin was peculiarly reassuring.
'Ha!' Poynter snarled in triumph. 'Yer sees that? She ain't a-flyin' a pennant — she's a merchant jack is she, the fat bastard!' The stem-on view of the ship had hidden her true character, but Poynter had spotted the obvious.
It seemed that on deck they had come to the same conclusion, for above their heads there was a sudden bang and reek of powder-smoke as a gun was fired to leeward to encourage the Spaniard to strike her colours.
Binney couldn't resist, and came over to join them at the gunport. 'She's a merchantman, you say.'
'She is,' said Poynter, who saw no reason why he should enlighten an officer.
The fleeing ship did not strike, and Kydd saw why: the other ship, the frigate, coming up fast must be her escort. The odds were now reversed, however. He did not envy the decision the frigate must take: to throw herself at a ship-of-the-line, even if of the smallest type, or to leave the merchantman to her fate. A frigate escort for just one merchant ship would see them safe against most, but a lone ship-of-the-line on passage would not be expected.
'We'll soon see if we win more than a barrel of guineas in prize money,' Binney said significantly.
This drew Poynter's immediate interest. 'How so — sir?'
'Why, if the frigate sacrifices himself for the merchantman we'll know he's worth taking. And if that's so, we may well have a Spaniard on his way to the mines with mercury. I don't have to tell you, that means millions ...'
His words flew along the gundeck, and soon the gunports were full of men peering ahead, chattering excitedly about their prospects. Another gun sounded above, but a stern chase would be a long one especially as Achilles had no chase guns that would bear so far forward, and with the French coast and safety lying ahead the Spaniard would take his chances.
The Spanish frigate tacked about; the combined effect of the run downwind and her own working to windward towards them had brought her close - this tack would see her in a position to interpose herself between Achilles and her prey.
'Stand to your guns!' bawled Binney. Kydd pulled back from the bright daylight into the sombre shades of the gundeck. All was in order, and he nodded slowly in satisfaction as he saw gun-captains yet again checking carefully the contents of their pouches, the quill tubes to ignite the main charge from the gunlock atop the breech, the spring-loaded powder horn for the priming.
Kydd had been in ships that had sailed into batde to the sound of stirring tunes from fife and drum, but
Achilles went into action in a lethal quiet, every order clear and easy to understand.
His stomach contracted - as much from his delayed breakfast as anything. From his position on the centreline he could see everything that happened inboard, but nothing of the wider sea scene.
But he could imagine: Achilles crowding after the merchantman, the frigate coming across between them, and in the best possible position for her — cutting across the bows of the ship-of-the-line and thereby avoiding her crushing broadside, and at the same time her own broadside would be ready to crash into Achilles's bow and rampage down the full length of the bigger ship.
A cooler appreciation told him that this was not something that an experienced captain would allow, and Dwyer was nothing if not experienced. Going large, the wind astern, there was the greatest scope for manoeuvrability, and at the right moment he would haul his wind - wheel around closer to the westerly — to bring his whole broadside to bear on the hapless frigate. They would lose ground on their chase, but. . .
'Starb'd first, then to larb'd,' Binney relayed. On the quarterdeck the captain had his plan complete: it was seldom that a ship fought both sides at once, and here they would be able to have the unengaged side gun-crews cross the deck to reinforce those in action. 'Mr Kydd, I want the best gun-captains to starb'd, if you please.'
Kydd felt the ship turn, the sudden heel making the deck sway before she steadied. He tensed. There was a muffled shout from the main-hatchway, and Binney roared, 'Stand by!'
Kydd braced himself, but these were only twenty-four-pounders; he had served great thirty-twos before now. At the gun closest to him he saw one of the new hands. His eyes were wild and his legs visibly shaking.
The distant shout again, and instandy Binney barked, 'Fire!'
The crash of their broadside with its deadly gunflashes playing through the smoke dinned on his ears, the smoke in great quantities filling the air. Up and down the invisible gundeck he heard the bellow of gun-captains as they whipped raw gun-crews into motion.
They had got in their broadside first. Such a brutal assault from two whole decks of guns would utterly shatter the frigate - if they had aimed true. Kydd felt Achilles's stately sway as she resumed her course; this she would not be doing if they had failed.
'Larb'd guns!' Having blasted the frigate to a standstill they would cross her bows and in turn deliver a ruinous raking broadside, while at the same time be resuming their pursuit.
He folded his arms and smiled. There was little for him to do. Poynter and the other quarter-gunners could be relied on to keep up the fire: his duty was for the graver part of an action — if it was hot work, with casualties and damage, Kydd would need a cool mind acting as deputy to the lieutenant of the gundeck, to see through carnage and destruction to deploying men to continue the fight. But there was no chance of that now.
Reload complete, the crews crossed to larboard and took position. 'Stand by!' Gun-captains crouched down, the handspikes went to work, the guns steadied and the gunlocks were held to the lanyard. Kydd pitied the helpless frigate somewhere out there on the bright morning sea, knowing what must be coming next. A cry from aft, and then Binney's 'Fire!’ The broadside smashed out — but a louder, flatter concussion overlaid the sound of the guns. Kydd's half-raised sleeve was rudely tugged away, sending him spinning to the deck. Then, the tearing screams and cries began.
He picked himself up shakily, afraid for what he would see when the smoke cleared. His coat had been ripped right up the sleeve, which hung useless, and as the smoke gave way he saw a gun now lying on its carriage, split open along its length, the upper portion vanished. Wisps of smoke still hung sullenly over it.
A small defect in casting deep within the iron of a gun, perhaps a bubble or streak of slag, had been sought out by the colossal forces of detonation and had failed, the rupture of metal spreading in an instant to burst the gun asunder.
The cost to its crew was grievous. Those closest had been torn apart, bright scarlet and entrails from the several bloody corpses bedaubing deck and nearby guns, and all around the piteous writhing of others not so lucky, choking out their lives in agony.
Flying pieces of metal had found victims even at a distance, and sounds of pain and distress chilled Kydd's blood. Binney stood further aft, swaying in shock, but he appeared untouched, staring at the slaughter.
The gundeck had come to a stop, aware of the tragedy forward. Kydd felt for the unfortunates involved, but there was a higher imperative: out there was an enemy not yet vanquished, who could lash back at any time. There was no alternative: organise fire buckets of water to soak away body parts, rig the wash-deck hose to sluice away the blood but, above all, resume the fight.
It was the worst possible luck — the easy success against the frigate was just what would have pulled Achilles's ship's company together and given point to their exercises, but now, and for a long time after, there would be flinching and dread in gun action.
Fearfully, the men turned back to their battle quarters. Kydd went to a gunport and looked out: the shattered ruin of the frigate lay dead in the water, falling behind as Achilles remorselessly pursued the merchantman. If their own frigate had stayed with them instead of slipping away during the night she would be sharing in the prize.
On deck they would be under a full press of sail; a stuns'l on the sides of every yard, all canvas possible spread, it would be a hard chase. Achilles was not a flyer but, then, neither was the merchantman, and all the time the coast of France was drawing nearer, already a meandering blue line on the horizon.
It was late afternoon, when the coastline was close enough to make out details, that the drama concluded. On the merchant ship the unwise setting of sail above her royals had its effect: the entire mizzen topmast was carried away, tumbling down with all its rigging in a hopeless ruin. The vessel slewed up into the wind, and within minutes a single fo'c'sle gun on Achilles thumped out and in answer her colours jerked down.
* * *
Even on the main gundeck there was jubilation; a respectably sized prize lay to under their guns, and with not another ship in sight they would not have to share the proceeds. The launch was sent away with an armed party as happy speculation mounted about her cargo.
But it was not the mercury, silver and other treasure that fevered imaginations had conjured. When the lieutenant of marines returned he hailed up at the quarterdeck from the'boat: 'Sir, I have to report, we've captured a Spanish general, Don Esturias de ... can't quite remember his whole name, sir.' There was a rumble of disappointed comment from the mass of men lining the ship's side.
'He's accompanied by a company of Carabineros Reales,' he added. 'And their pay-chest.'
An immediate buzz of interest began, headed off by the captain. 'My compliments to Don, er, to the general, and I'd be honoured to have him as my guest—'
'Sir, the general does not recognise that he's been defeated in the field. He says - his aide says, sir, that he had no part in his own defence, and therefore he will stay with his faithful soldiers in what they must endure.'
Dwyer glanced at the first lieutenant with a thin smile. 'Do you go to the ship and secure it, the troops to be battened down well — the general too, if he wants it.'
'The pay-chest, sir?'
'Leave it where it is for now. Take who you need to fish the mizzen topmast and we'll have a prize-crew ready for you later.'
A satisfied Achilles shaped course north, into the night. By morning they would have the big French port of Brest under their lee; then it was only a matter of rounding Ushant and a direct course to England.
During the night, vigilant eyes ensured their prize did not stray. The morning light shone on her dutifully to leeward, a heartening sight for the bleary-eyed middle-watchmen coming on deck for the forenoon exercise period.
Just as Brest came abeam and Achilles was deep into three masts of sail drill, their prize fell off the wind, heeling over to starboard and taking up a course at right-angles to her previous one — towards the land. Above her stern, the White Ensign of England jerked down, and moments later proud Spanish colours floated triumphantly on the peak halliards.
It was a bitter blow. The prisoners had risen during the night and taken the ship, but bided their time before completing their break.
A roar of rage and disappointment arose from Achilles, but the run had been timed well, and it was long minutes before the ship could revert her exercise sail to running before the wind. There was no hope: sail appeared close inshore — it was common to see a French ship fleeing before an English predator and gunboats were always on hand to usher in the quarry. There was no chance they could haul up to their ex-prize in time. Achilles slewed round to send a frustrated broadside after her and slunk away, rounding irritably on an interested English frigate of the inshore squadron attracted by the gunfire. Yet again, the fortunes of war had conspired against them.
The next day, in a bitter mood, Achilles sighted the grey point of the Lizard, the most southerly point of England, but Kydd's spirits soared. It had been so long, so far away, and now he was returning once more to his native soil, to the roots of his existence. It was only a lumpy blue line on the horizon ahead, but it meant so much.
'Y'r folks are in Scotland, o' course, Tarn,' Kydd offered, seeing a certain distraction on his friend's face.
Cockburn didn't answer at once, seeming to choose his words. 'Yes. In Penicuik — that's Edinburgh.'
The ship made a dignified bow to one of the last Atlantic rollers coming under her keel; the shorter, busier waves of the Channel produced more of a nodding. There were sails close inshore, coasting vessels carrying most of the country trade of England with their grubby white or red bark-tanned canvas, and occasionally larger deep-sea ships outward bound or arriving after long ocean voyages.
'You'll be lookin' t' postin' up, or will ye take the Leith packet?' Kydd hugged to himself the knowledge that Guildford was less than a day away by coach from Portsmouth - and this time he'd travel inside.
'Perhaps neither. We won't be at liberty too long, I'll wager.' He wouldn't look at Kydd, who suddenly remembered that Cockburn had left his home and family as a midshipman, a future officer, but had yet to make the big step. It would not be a glorious homecoming, without anything to show for his years away, neither promotion nor prize money.
Impulsively Kydd tried to reach out: 'Ye'll be welcome t' come visit the Kydds in Guildford, Tarn. We've a rare old—'
'That's kind in you, Tom, but in Spithead I've a mind to petition for transfer to a frigate, if at all possible.'
There were far better chances for promotion and prizes in a frigate rather than part of a fleet, but Kydd knew that his chances among all the others clamouring for the same thing were not good. He stayed for a space, then said, 'Best o' luck in that, m' friend,' and went forward: he didn't want his elation to be spoiled.
Captain Dwyer paced grimly up and down the quarterdeck. 'What is the meaning of that damned Irish pennant?' he snarled at the boatswain, pointing angrily up at a light line tapping playfully high up on the after edge of the main topgallant sail. Welby snapped at the mate-of-the-watch and a duty topman swung into the shrouds and scrambled aloft. It would not do to be laggardly when Dwyer was so clearly in a foul mood.
Dwyer stopped his pacing, and glared at Binney. 'I have it in mind to press some good hands, replace our prize crew.' These would now be in captivity — the lieutenant would in due course be exchanged, but the seamen had nothing but endless years of