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Pope Dudley - Ramage and the drum beat

adv_maritimePopeand the drum beatthe second book of the Nicholas Ramage series Lieutenant Lord Ramage is ordered to proceed to Gibraltar-with all possible dispatch - aboard His Majesty's ship Kathleen, to support Nelson in a battle with the Spanish off Cape Trafalgar.#2Pope and the drum beatBill and our baby Janesailed acrossAtlantic with usONEheat and humidity of a Mediterranean summer made the watermark in the paper stand out like a fading scar, and traces of mildew left a tarnished gilt outline round the edges. The orders, in a clerk's careful handwriting that was sufficiently faint to indicate he was short of powder to make the ink, were dated 21st October, 1796, headed 'By Commodore Horatio Nelson, Commander of His Majesty's ship Diadem and senior officer of His Majesty's ships and vessels at Bastia,' and addressed to 'Lieutenant Lord Ramage, Commander of His Majesty's ship Kathleen'. They said, with a directness reflecting the Commodore's manner:

'You are hereby required and directed to receive on board His Majesty's ship under your command the persons of the Marchesa di Volterra and Count Pitti, and to proceed with all possible despatch to Gibraltar, being careful to follow a southerly route to avoid interception by enemy ships of war ... On arrival at Gibraltar you will report forthwith to the Admiral commanding to receive orders for your further proceedings.'be told, Ramage guessed, that the Marchesa and Pitti would go to England in a much bigger ship. The Kathleen would then almost certainly be ordered to rejoin the Commodore's squadron, which should have finished evacuating the British troops from Bastia (leaving the whole of Corsica in rebel and French hands) and have sailed back to the island of Elba to salvage what it could as General Bonaparte's troops swept southward down the Italian mainland like a river in full flood., Pisa, Milan, Florence, Leghorn and by now perhaps even Civitavecchia and Rome ... Each city and port that was beautiful and useful to the French would have a Tricolour and a wrought iron Tree of Liberty (with the absurd Red Cap of Liberty perched on top) set up in its main piazza, with a guillotine near by for those unable to stomach the Tree's bitter fruit., he thought ironically, it's an ill wind ... Thanks to Bonaparte's invasion, His Majesty's cutter Kathleen was now the first command of Lieutenant Ramage; and thanks to Bonaparte - an unlikely enough Cupid - one of those who had fled before his troops was on board the Kathleen and the said Lieutenant Ramage had fallen in love with her....scratched his face with the feather of his quill pen and thought of another set of orders, the secret orders which had, like a fuse leading to a row of powder kegs, set off a series of explosions which had rocked his career for the past couple of months.1st September, the date those orders were issued to the captain of the Sibella frigate, he had been the junior of three lieutenants on board. The orders, known only to the captain, had been to take the Sibella to a point off the Italian coast and rescue several Italian nobles who had fled from the French and were hiding near the beach.a chance evening meeting with a French line of battle ship had left the Sibella a shattered wreck, with himself the only surviving officer, and as night came down he'd been able to escape in the remaining boats with the unwounded men. And before quitting the Sibella he'd grabbed the dead captain's secret orders.he had thrown them over the side in the special weighted box kept for the purpose? That's what he should have done, since there was a considerable risk that the French would capture him.he hadn't; instead he'd read them in the open boat - and found that only a few miles away the Marchesa di Volterra and two cousins, Counts Pitti and Pisano, with several other nobles, were waiting to be rescued. The fact that the Volterras were old friends of his parents hadn't influenced his decision (no, he was sure it hadn't) to take one of the boats and carry out the rescue.everything had gone wrong. Only the Marchesa and her two cousins had finally risked escaping in the boat, and he'd bungled the whole business. Surprised by French cavalry, Pitti had apparently been killed by a shot which destroyed his face, and Ramage had been lucky to get the Marchesa and Pisano away safely.... it was an odd word for him to choose; the Marchesa had been wounded and Pisano, who'd behaved in a cowardly fashion - so much so that the seamen in the boat were shocked by what they saw - had suddenly accused him of cowardice. And when he'd got them safely to Corsica, Pisano had repeated the accusations in writing.shivered as he thought of the resulting court martial. It was bad luck that the senior officer ordering the trial had been an enemy of his father's; it was almost unbelievable how the Marchesa had suddenly thrown aside all loyalty to her cousin and given evidence on Ramage's behalf, not only denying that he'd been a coward but declaring that, on the contrary, he'd been a hero....at the end of it all, with the wretched Pisano discredited, Count Pitti had suddenly arrived in Bastia. Far from being shot in the face, he had twisted his ankle while running alone to the boat and, rather than delay his rescuers, hidden under a bush.both the Marchesa and Antonio Pitti had subsequently been fulsome in their praise to Commodore Nelson (who'd arrived in Bastia while the court martial was in progress) Ramage admitted to himself the trial had been more of a blow to his pride than anyone (except perhaps Gianna) had guessed. The proof was that he kept on thinking about it.sat up impatiently: the devil take it, the whole business was over and done with now and this was no time for sitting here like an old hen brooding over it. He folded the Commodore's orders, which he now knew by heart, opened his log book, and dipped the pen in the ink.the time of nine o'clock and under the columns headed courses and winds, he wrote with a petulant flourish of his pen 'Becalmed'. In the next column headed remarks he noted, 'Sunday, 30th October 1796. Ship's Company employed atsr. 10 o'clock Divisions. 10.30 Divine Service. 11.30 clear decks and up spirits. 12 dinner.'disliked the abbreviation atsr but it was customary: 'as the Service required' usually appeared at least twice a day in a log book.it was still only half past nine he'd anticipated the rest of the morning's routine, but his temporary cabin was dark, hot and airless and he hated it. He wiped the pen impatiently, smearing ink on his thumb, locked up the log and his orders, and went up on deck, acknowledging the sentry's salute with a curt nod.discontented scowl on his face warned the men to keep clear as he strode off. He always detested Sundays at sea because of all the rigmarole it entailed for the commanding officer of one of His Majesty's ships of war, even if he was but a very junior lieutenant and the ship of war a very small cutter armed with only ten corranades.even more he detested being becalmed in the Mediterranean on a late autumn day when the long oily swell waves gave no hint of a breeze arriving in the next hour, or even the next week. Purgatory must be something like this, he thought wryly, though he had the advantage over everyone else on board since he could display his irritation and they could not.over the taffrail he watched the crest of each swell wave coming up astern to see-saw the cutter, lifting first her buoyant counter and then sweeping forward to raise the bow and let the counter drop into the trough with a squelch like a foot in a sodden boot.was an irregular, unnatural and thoroughly uncomfortable motion, like dice in a shaker, and everything on board that could move did move: the slides of the heavy, squat carronades squeaked and the ropes of their side-tackles groaned under the jerky strain; the halyard blocks banged and the halyards themselves slatted against the mast. And - the last straw as far as Ramage was concerned - the headsails were lashed down to the foot of their stays, the big mainsail furled and the wind vane at the masthead spun round and round on its spindle as the mast gyrated, instead of indicating the wind's direction.of light winds and brief thunderstorms the Kathleen had covered only four hundred miles in the past eight days - an average of a couple of knots, less than the pace of a child dawdling to school. It was more than eleven hundred miles from Bastia to Gibraltar, and he was only too conscious of the phrase 'with all possible despatch' in the Commodore's orders.occasionally outraged growl from behind him told Ramage that Henry Southwick, the elderly and usually almost offensively cheerful Master and his second-in-command, was making a last-minute search before reporting the ship and ship's company ready for inspection. With a Master like Southwick the Sunday inspection was merely a routine; Ramage knew not a speck of the brickdust used to polish brasswork, nor a grain of sand lurking in the scuppers after the deck had been holystoned and washed down with a head pump would escape his eye. The cook's coppers would be shining and each mess's bread barge, platters and mugs would be spotless and its pudding cloth scrubbed. Every man was already shaved and rigged out in clean shirt and trousers ... Yet for all that Southwick would soon ask permission to muster the ship's company. Then, after the inspection, all hands would be ordered aft for Divine Service, which Ramage would have to conduct himself.thought made him self-conscious; he would be taking it for only the sixth time in his life, since he'd commanded the Kathleen for precisely forty-two days and still found it hard to believe that almost the last entry in the cutter's muster book said, 'Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage ... as per commission dated 19th September 1796 ...' The sixth Sunday - and he remembered that under the Regulations and instructions, the captain had to read the thirty-six Articles of War to the ship's company once a month. Since it could replace a sermon he might as well read them today because the sun was shining, and next Sunday it might be pouring with rain and blowing a gale of wind.three years of war all but the most stupid seamen knew by heart the Articles' forthright exhortations warning everyone in the Fleet, from admirals to boys, of the perils and punishment for the sins of treason, mutiny, blasphemy, cowardice and drunkenness; and they knew in particular the thirty-sixth, nicknamed 'The Captain's Cloak', which was so phrased that it enabled a captain to word a charge to cover any other villainy that the wit and ingenuity of errant seamen might devise. Still, as long as they could then bellow a few hymns to the fearful tunes John Smith the Second scraped on his fiddle, the men would listen patiently enough. After that they'd be piped to dinner and those off watch would spend the rest of the afternoon skylarking, dancing, mending clothes and, Ramage thought gloomily, before sundown - unless they were an exemplary ship's company - one or two who had hoarded their grog or won extra tots from their messmates, would be brought before him blind drunk...Marchesa di Volterra stood under the skylight of the captain's cabin, which was hers for the voyage, twisting the looking glass in her hand first one way and then the other to make sure no stray locks of hair had escaped from the chignon that she had spent the last ten minutes trying to tie. Her arms ached. She was hot, and for the first time since the Royal Navy, in the shape of Ramage, had rescued her and her cousin from the mainland as they fled before Bonaparte's cavalry, she wished herself back in her palace at Volterra, where her merest frown would bring a dozen maids running.the first time in her seventeen years of life (nearly eighteen, she remembered proudly) she really wanted to make herself look beautiful to please a particular man, and she was having to do it in a tiny cabin without a maid, a wardrobe, or jewellery. How did Nicholas ever manage to live in such a cabin? She was much smaller - his chin rested on her head when she stood close - yet the ceiling, or whatever Nicholas called it, was so low that even now she had to stoop to hold the looking glass high enough. Impatiently she flung the glass into the swinging cot and sat down in the single chair in front of the desk which served as a dressing table. Accidente! What was the use? If only her hair was blonde! Everyone had black hair, and she wanted to look different. Did he like high cheekbones? Hers were much too high. And the mouth - hers was too big, and she wished the lips were thinner. And her eyes were too large and brown when she preferred blue or grey-green, like a cat's. And why was her nose small and slightly hooked, when she wanted a straight one? And her complexion was shaming - the sun had tanned it gold so that she looked like a peasant girl instead of the woman who ruled a city and a kingdom (even if the kingdom was small the city was big). She ruled twenty thousand people, she thought bitterly, and not one of them was here now to help her dress her hair - except her cousin, Antonio, and he'd only laugh and tease., Antonio could laugh, but he must help. When she called, a heavily built man with a short, squarely trimmed black beard came into the cabin, shoulders hunched to avoid bumping his head on the low beams.



'Well, well! And whose garden party is my beautiful cousin gracing with her presence today?'

'There's only one, my dear Antonio. Hasn't Lieutenant Ramage invited the elegant Count Pitti? Everyone will be there - Nicholas makes them put on their best clothes and sing hymns. Perhaps he'll flog some of them with a cat of seven tails just to amuse you.'

'Cat o' nine tails,' Count Pitti corrected in English.

'Nine then. Antonio, help me tidy my hair.'

'It doesn't need it. You're beautiful and you know it and if you want compliments...'

'Will you help me tidy my hair?'

'You love him very deeply, don't you?'question was sudden and unexpected but she neither blushed nor glanced away. Instead she looked directly at him, and said with awe, almost fear, in her voice, 'I didn't know it was possible. I was a child before I met him; he's made me feel a woman. And he - he's a man, Antonio; everything a man should be. I know only one other man like him.'

'And he is?'

'You, my dear cousin. One day a woman will feel for you as I do for him.'

'I hope so,' he said soberly, 'though I won't deserve it. But you have known him - three weeks, a month?'

'Does that matter?'

'No - but never forget you met him in romantic circumstances. It's the stuff of story books - the dashing young naval officer sweeping in from the sea to rescue the beautiful Marchesa from beneath the feet of Napoleon's cavalry and ...’

'I know. I've thought all about that. But I've also seen him dirty and stinking and exhausted, seen him fighting Napoleon's cavalrymen with only a knife, seen him unjustly court-martialled on a trumped-up charge of cowardice ... Is this the stuff of story books as well?'shook his head. 'No, but when you're parted? When he's at sea for months, perhaps years, what then? You've never had patience, Gianna. Since you inherited Volterra you've been able to have everything you wanted - at once.'

'That's true,' she admitted. 'But they were material things: jewels, gay balls, excitement. I think perhaps I wanted all that so urgently because I hadn't met him. When you've no one to love, to confide in - to live for, in fact - you get bored; you need entertaining. When there's no sun, you need many candles everywhere.'

'Tell me more about this English chandelier!'as she smiled she realized she knew very little about him in the conventional sense; but in the past month when the two of them had together faced so much danger, adventure, death and intrigue she'd learned things about him that in normal times a woman might live with a man a lifetime without discovering. And apart from the times of immediate danger she'd seen him in the secret agony of making decisions on which his men's lives depended. She'd seen what probably none of his men ever saw, that command was desperately lonely, particularly for someone as young and sensitive as Nicholas. He'd been given command at an early age and it hadn't yet (nor, she knew, would it ever) brutalized him so he became callous about his men.

'He was twenty-one years old a few weeks ago and he's been at sea since he was thirteen; the scar on his forehead is a sword wound from when he was boarding a French frigate last year, and when he's nervous or under a strain he rubs it and blinks and has trouble pronouncing the letter "r". I don't really know why he never uses his title - as an earl's son he has one, and the Navy uses it in official letters - but I think it makes social difficulties with superior officers if he is called "Lord". His parents knew mine, Oh, Antonio, I sound like a catalogue. I can't describe him!'

'Wasn't there some trouble about his father?'

'Yes. Perhaps you can remember the famous trial of Admiral the Earl of Blazey? I was too young. No? Well, anyway, that was Nicholas's father. The French sailed a large fleet to the West Indies and the Earl was sent out much too late with a tiny British fleet. He fought them bravely but he didn't win; nor did the French. Then the English people, who didn't know how few ships the Earl had - and they were old and decrepit anyway - made a terrible fuss and the Government got frightened. Like all Governments it wouldn't admit its mistake, so it court-martialled the Earl because he didn't capture all the French ships.'

'And he was found guilty?'

'Yes - he had to be, to save the Ministers. He was the scapegoat. If he'd been found innocent then obviously the Government was guilty. Apparently the judges in a naval court martial are naval officers, and since many of them are mixed up in politics it was easy for the Government - the Admiralty, anyway, which is the same thing - to choose officers supporting its own party for the court martial. Commodore Nelson told me it often happens. He says politics are the curse of the Navy!'

'So the Earl must still have many enemies in the Navy, and this affects Nicholas. A sort of vendetta...

'Yes, very much so. That horrible man who had Nicholas court-martialled at Bastia after he had rescued me was the protege of one of them, but luckily Commodore Nelson knew all about that.'

'If the Earl still has enemies among the admirals, Nicholas will always be in danger,' reflected Antonio. 'You can always put someone in the wrong if you want to ... Nicholas realizes that?'

'Yes I'm sure he does, though he's never mentioned it to me. But I often sensed, when he was making some important decision, that - well, he knew that even if there were only two alternatives, his father's enemies would say whichever he chose was the wrong one. It never affected his decisions - just that I felt there was always something lurking in the shadows, threatening him. As if he knew he had the Evil Eye on him....'

'You've discovered a lot about Nicholas in a month!'

'Jackson told me some things, and so did the Commodore.'

'This seaman Jackson - isn't he an American?'

'Yes - a strange man. No one knows much about him, but he has a great respect for Nicholas - even though he's twice his age. It's curious - when they're in danger they seem to be able to read each other's thoughts.'

'Well, he saved my life,' said Antonio, 'and that's enough for me!'then a shrill warbling note of a bosun's call echoed through the ship, followed by shouted orders. 'Time for church,' Antonio grinned. 'Your Nicholas makes a good priest!'was glad the inspection and Divine Service was over, and watching a handful of men dancing on the fo'c'sle as John Smith the Second perched on the barrel of the windlass scratching at his fiddle, he was thankful the Kathleen had such a good ship's company. Out of the sixty-three men on board he'd like to change only a couple, whereas most ships he'd previously served in had only a couple of really good men out of five score.trust Mr. Ramage to spot something, he thought ruefully. Every captain he'd ever served under looked for brickdust, sand, dirty coppers or a bit of mildewed biscuit in a bread barge. But not Mr. Ramage. Out of nearly two hundred round shot in the racks beside the carronades he'd spotted two that had sufficient rust scale under the black paint to make them no longer completely spherical, so that they might stick in the barrel while being loaded and also wouldn't fly true. The man who noticed that without passing each one through a shot gauge could see through a four-inch plank. Yet Southwick readily admitted, although he was only a youngster, Mr. Ramage was the first captain he'd ever served under who was more concerned with the way a ship could fight than the way it could be scrubbed and polished, and that was a dam' good thing since there was a war on. And in twenty-six years at sea he never thought he'd ever daily see men actually enjoying three solid hours of gun drill in the hot sun of the forenoon followed by two more before hammocks were piped down. Still, a lot of it was due to the Marchesa. Southwick didn't know whether it was her idea or Mr. Ramage's, but having her standing there with Mr. Ramage's watch in her hand timing them certainly kept the men on their toes. And it rounded off the day nicely when she awarded the prize tots of Mr. Ramage's brandy to the crew of the gun that had been first to report 'Ready to Fire!' the most times.Southwick was certain the Kathleen was a happy and efficient ship simply because, young as he was, every man on board trusted Mr. Ramage as their captain. His twenty-six years at sea had taught the Master that that was the only thing that mattered. Certainly, under the regulations they had to salute the captain and call him 'Sir'; but they'd have done so anyway. Although he was quick enough to rub 'em down for slack sail handling or slowness in running out the guns, the ship’s company knew Mr. Ramage could do most things better than they and he had a happy knack of proving it when necessary with a matter-of-fact smile on his face, so that the men, far from being resentful, took it as, well, a sort of challenge.remembering he was still holding his quadrant, Southwick picked up the slate and went down to his cabin to work out the noon sight he had just taken. Mr. Ramage would soon be calling for the day's reckoning, since at sea the new day began at noon.felt like singing. He'd watched a tiny wind shadow dancing over the sea to the north; then more appeared and closed with the Kathleen. Within a minute or two he had the men cheering as they heaved down on the halyards, hoisting the great mainsail, then the largest of the cutter's jibs and foresails. A few moments later the main-topsail was set, followed by the jib topsail, and while the men afted the sheets under Southwick's orders, Ramage looked at his watch and then at the luffs of the sails.the Master saw the last sail trimmed properly, he bawled 'Belay that' to the sheetmen and swung round to Ramage, an inquiring look on his face. Ramage, noticing the men had also stopped to look at him, put his watch back in his pocket with deliberate slowness and shook his head.looked crestfallen and he sensed the men's genuine disappointment so that he was slightly ashamed of his deception and called with a grin, 'All right, all right, you've just beaten the record - by half a minute!'slapped his knee with delight - he'd obviously been thinking of a few seconds - and the men were laughing as the Master dismissed them. Southwick and all except those on watch went below. Ramage, disappointed Gianna did not stay on deck now the Kathleen was under way once again, decided against sending for her to enjoy the breeze with him because she might be sleeping. Then for no apparent reason he suddenly felt uneasy, and he remembered how his mother sometimes shivered and said, 'Someone's walking over my grave!'TWOhe was sober, John Smith the Second looked sly and foxy, an impression heightened by his small, wiry body; but once he had sunk his tot of rum - and any others he'd won by gambling - his features softened and the shifty eyes settled down so his drink-mottled face had the blissful look of a poacher after a successful night's raid on the squire's game preserves. Rated in the muster book as an able seaman, and listed as 'the Second' to distinguish him from another seaman of the same name, Smith was also the Kathleen's band. He had a fiddle which, as long as he was not sober, he enjoyed playing, and Sunday was his busy day. He played hymns for the service in the forenoon, and in the afternoon sat on the barrel of the windlass scraping away as the men danced.had been on watch for half an hour and although he valued Smith both as a seaman and a means of keeping the men happy, the sawing of the fiddle was an outrage to a musical ear; so much so that Ramage felt he could cheerfully shoot the fiddle out of John Smith the Second's nimble fingers.he remembered the case of duelling pistols which the Viceroy of Corsica, Sir Gilbert Elliot, an old friend of his family, had sent on board at Bastia as a present when he heard Ramage had been given his first command. He had not yet had time to try them out, and now was a good opportunity. He passed the word and a few moments later Jackson had the brass-edged mahogany case open on the cabin skylight, wiping off the protective film of oil from both the pistols. They were a beautiful matched pair made by Joseph Manton, whose lion and unicorn label was stuck inside the lid of the case. Each gun had a long hexagonal barrel and a rich-grained walnut stock.picked up one of them. It was perfectly balanced. The stock fitted into his palm as though the pistol was a natural extension of his arm; his index finger curled round the trigger as if the gun had been specially made for his hand. And the mahogany case was fitted with a mould for casting shot, a stamp for cutting out wads, flasks of powder and a box of extra flints. The set was, Ramage thought, a credit to the gunmaker of Hanover Square, and he richly deserved the proud announcement on the label, 'Gun Maker to His Majesty'.the meantime Jackson had loaded the other pistol.

'It's a lovely piece, sir,' he said, handing it to Ramage. 'I'll go down and get some bits of wood from the carpenter's mate to use as targets.'

'And pass the word to ignore the sound of shots!' Ramage said.few minutes later Jackson was back with a bundle of wood under his arm. Ramage, who had loaded the second pistol, climbed up on to the breech of the aftermost carronade, balancing himself against the roll of the ship. He sighted with the pistol in his right hand, then tried the left.

'Right, Jackson, throw over the largest piece!'wood arched up into the air and splashed into the sea several yards off and began drawing away as the ship sailed on.had cocked the pistol and brought up his right arm straight from his side, sighted along the flat top of the barrel, and squeezed the trigger. A tiny plume of water, like a feather, jumped up two yards beyond the piece of wood.

'All right for traverse but too much elevation sir!' Jackson called.at once Ramage fired the second pistol with his left hand. The wood jumped and the shot whined off in ricochet.

'Phew,' commented Jackson. 'Left-handed, too!'grinned. It had been a lucky shot because usually he had a tendency to pull a pistol to the left when firing with his left hand.gave both pistols back to Jackson to re-load and as he jumped down from the carronade he saw Gianna coming up the companionway.

'Accidente!' she exclaimed. 'Are the enemy in sight?'

'Target practice - I'm trying out the pistols Sir Gilbert gave me.'came up, and then Antonio joined them and watched Jackson as he rammed the shot home.

'Duelling pistols, Nico? Surely they're rather long in the barrel for use in a ship?'

'Yes - but a pleasant change. Our Sea Service models are so heavy on the trigger you need to jam the muzzle in a man's stomach to be sure of hitting him. But these - just a touch on the trigger.'took the pistol Jackson had loaded.

'Careful,' Ramage warned.looked at him scornfully, lifted her skirts and scrambled on to the carronade.

'Look, you see that bit of weed? I'll hit it! You'll wager me?'

'One cestesimo.'

'More. Two - hurry!'waiting for a reply she cocked the pistol and fired. The shot sent up a tiny spurt of water several feet beyond the piece of floating weed.

"The ship moved!'

'You didn't allow for the roll!'

'It's not fair. I do not pay. Let's have a proper match. You and your knife and me with this pistol.'

'Match or duel?' Ramage asked wryly.

'Match - to begin with.'

'Be careful, Nico,' warned Antonio. 'Don't forget her mother wanted a son and brought her up as a boy! She shoots like a hunter, rides like a jockey and gambles like a fool!'gave a mock curtsy from atop the carronade. 'Thank you, cousin Antionio. You see, Nico how close are the family ties among Italians!'

'Tell me, Nico,' interrupted Antonio, 'surely throwing a knife isn't part of a sailor's training?'laughed. 'No - that's Italian training! When my parents lived in Italy - they did for a few years - we had a Sicilian coachman. He taught me.'

'Come on,' Gianna exclaimed impatiently. 'Jackson will throw something into the sea and I hit it at the count of ten. You, Nico,' she looked round 'you have to hit the mast with your knife while standing by that steering stick thing.'

'The tiller.'

'Yes, the tiller. That's fair, I think. And the stakes?'

'Un cestesimo.'

'You are a gambler. Can't you afford more?'

'I'm only a poor lieutenant, Ma'am!'

'You can afford more, though.'her voice was still bantering he knew she was not joking. He looked puzzled and she pointed to his left hand. When he lifted it she indicated the gold signet ring with the rampant griffin crest on his little finger.

'All right, then,' he said reluctantly, 'my signet ring against—'holding the pistol, she had turned her right hand just enough to let him see the heavy gold ring she was wearing on the middle finger.

'—against the ring you are wearing.'

'Oh no!' she exclaimed. 'That's not fair!'knew her too well. 'That or no match.'her shoulders with apparent ill grace she said, 'Very well. But if you win the first time you give me another chance.'was just going to refuse when he realized her subtlety: if she lost and then won, they could exchange rings without anyone knowing. It was childish but he felt elated: their secret was a secret yet they took pleasure in almost flaunting it.

'All right, but Antonio must hold the stakes,' he said, pulling off his signet ring. He turned to call for Jackson and saw he and Southwick were standing near by, Southwick holding a small wooden cask.

'This do as a target, sir?'

'If it's half full of water, yes.'

'It's empty, sir.'

'So it floats high in the water, eh? Has the Marchesa bribed you?'

'Deck there! Deck there!'shout from aloft suddenly reminded them that for the last fifteen minutes everyone except the lookout and the two men at the helm had forgotten the Kathleen was a ship of war.

'Deck here,' bellowed Southwick.'s a hulk or summat - maybe a small island - fine on the starboard bow, sir.'

'What d'you mean, a hulk?'

'Well, sir, no masts nor nothin', yet looks like a hull. S'just lifting over the horizing, sir.'handed his telescope to Jackson. 'Here, get aloft with this bring-'em-near and see what you make of it.'aspect of commanding a ship annoyed Ramage: a few weeks ago when he was junior lieutenant in a frigate he'd have been up the ratlines in a moment, having a look for himself. Now, as captain of the tiny Kathleen but with the same powers of life and death over his crew as the captain of a great three-decker, he had to maintain an appearance of calm detachment - at least, he thought ruefully, he would if Gianna was not on board, cheerfully turning a dull voyage into a fete.lanky, sandy-haired American ran up the ratlines as effortlessly as if hauled up by an invisible halyard. Once astride the cro'jack yard he paused to pull out the tubes of the telescope and then looked in the direction the lookout was pointing.Southwick, whose cherubic face and flowing white hair gave him the appearance of a benevolent parson, would celebrate his sixtieth birthday in a few weeks' time, a fact he remembered as he glanced at Ramage. Although the young captain was a year or two over a third of his age and they'd served together for little more than five weeks, Southwick sensed that given a long war and that Ramage survived the intrigues of his father's enemies and the efforts of the French and Spanish, every man that ever sailed with Mr. Ramage would spend his dotage boasting about it to his grandchildren, and Southwick admitted he'd be no exception. Young captains usually annoyed him. He'd served under too many who had been given commands because their fathers owned enough cash and countryside to ensure their own nominees were elected to Parliament. All too often, when grumbling about the blatant inexperience of some young puppy in command, he'd met with the reply, 'Well, his father's worth a couple of votes to the Government.' (What's the ratio of pastureland to patronage? he wondered sourly.) Anyway, none of that could be said about Mr. Ramage, since the Government had tried to get his father shot, like poor old Admiral Byng.saw Ramage was blinking again, as though looking at a bright light, and rubbing the scar over his right brow. Although recognizing the warning signal, Southwick wondered what had caused it and, glancing at the Marchesa, saw she too had noticed and was watching with anxiety and affection in her face.well-matched pair, he thought, and he could well understand her love (although he was sure Mr. Ramage was quite unaware of the depth of it). Sentimentally, picturing the Marchesa as his daughter, the old Master tried to see Ramage through her eyes. He had that classical build like the Greek statues he'd seen in the Morea, with wide shoulders and slim hips, light on his feet and the kind of walk that'd betrayed him as a man born to lead, even if he was dressed in rags. But as far as Southwick was concerned the eyes revealed most: dark brown, deep set over high cheekbones and slung under bushy eyebrows (which met in a straight line when he was angry or excited), they could look as cold and dangerous as the muzzles of a pair of pistols. Yet he had a dry, straight-faced sense of humour which the men liked, although Southwick admitted that often he only realized he was having his leg pulled when he noticed the tiny wrinkles at the corners of the eyes. 'Deck there,' hailed Jackson. 'A hulk, for certain.'

'Can y' make out her build?' yelled Southwick, suddenly jerked back into the present.

'Not yet. She's stern on but yawing around.'knew it couldn't have been an island - there was no land for miles; but what was a dismasted ship doing out here? Suddenly he remembered the previous afternoon's squall. At first he'd taken it for just another Mediterranean autumn thunderstorm, one of the usual couple a day. But as it approached Mr. Ramage had come on deck, seen it and at once called to him to get every stitch of canvas off the ship, and as Southwick had passed on the order he'd been hard put to keep the surprise and doubt out of his voice. But Mr. Ramage had been right; three minutes after the last gasket had been tied, securing the furled sails and leaving the ship rolling in a near calm, a seemingly solid wall of wind had hit the Kathleen and, with only the mast, spars, furled sails and hull to get leverage on, heeled her right over until water poured in at the gun and oar ports, and it had taken extra men at the tiller to get her to bear away under bare poles.had expected her to capsize and knew he'd never fathom how Mr. Ramage guessed there was so much wind in that particular thunderstorm. It'd seemed no larger and its clouds were no blacker than any of the others. But a ship whose captain hadn't known - well, even if she hadn't capsized, her masts would have certainly gone by the board.looked at Ramage and as their eyes met he knew the lieutenant had worked all that out even before Jackson had started up the ratlines.

'One of ours, sir?'

'I doubt it; not in this position.*that Ramage went below to use the desk in his own cabin, ducking his head under the beams and acknowledging the sentry's salute. Even with his neck bent he could not stand upright, although it hardly mattered since the cabin was too small to walk around. And at the moment there could be no mistaking it was temporarily the quarters of a young woman accustomed to having several servants running around after her: flimsy and intimate silk garments edged with delicate lace were strewn on the desk, others tossed into the cot. As he lifted several from the desk he saw one still held the shape of Gianna's body; she must have flung it off when she changed for lunch. Quite deliberately Ramage pictured the naked Eve carved by Ghiberti on the east doors of the Baptistry in Florence - an Eve for whom Gianna might have been the model: the same small, slim, bold body; the same small, bold breasts, flat belly ... He swept the clothes aside, unlocked the second drawer and took out a thick book with a mottled brown cover labelled Signal Book for Ships of War.the end he found some handwriting on pages left clear of print which listed the numbers and positions of the various rendezvous for ships of the Mediterranean Fleet. He noted the latitude and longitude of the nearest, Number Eleven, and pulled a chart from the rack above the desk. The rendezvous was seventy-five miles to the eastward of the Kathleen's present position - and with the wind they'd been having it ruled out any chance the dismasted ship was a British frigate waiting like a sentry at the rendezvous with fresh orders or information for ships ordered to call there.put a finger on the chart. The Kathleen was here, about a hundred miles due west of the southern tip of Sardinia, because he was going well south to skirt the African coast, at the same time giving a wide berth to Majorca, Minorca and the south-eastern corner of Spain. The ship ahead was much too far north to be British and bound from Naples, Malta or the Levant to Gibraltar. He glanced at the top of the chart. Toulon - yes, a French ship from the eastward and bound for the great naval base could be here. But he saw Barcelona to the west and, farther south, Cartagena, were also possible destinations for Spanish warships whose captains would be anxious to keep to the northward because of the shoals and unpredictable currents along the low-lying African coast. A ship returning after rounding Corsica and Sardinia (as he knew several Spanish ships had done recently watching for the British Fleet) might also be here.heard Jackson shouting from aloft but could not make out the words, and after replacing the chart and locking up the Signal Book, turned to leave the cabin just as Southwick came down the companionway.

'Jackson says she's a frigate sir,' the Master explained, following Ramage up the ladder. 'Swept clean and not a stick set as a jury rig. Says she looks Spanish built'

'Very well, Mr. Southwick: continue heading up towards her until we can be sure.'and Antonio both looked excited as they walked over to meet him. 'If she's Spanish, we can pull her to Gibraltar,' Antonio said.shook his head. 'There'll be no towing, unless she's British.'

'Oh!' exclaimed Gianna. 'Why not?'

'I—'

'Deck there!' hailed Jackson. 'She's definitely Spanish built.'acknowledged the hail and Ramage turned away to avoid answering Gianna's question, but she repeated it.

'Because, madam,' Ramage said heavily, 'We have a ship's company of sixty-three and we carry ten carronades, each of which fire a 6-pound shot for less than five hundred yards. If that ship over there is a Spanish frigate, she has about two hundred and fifty men on board, and probably soldiers as well, and carries at least thirty-six guns which fire a 12-pound shot for fifteen hundred yards. Any one of those shot could cripple us - they're more than four and a half inches in diameter - and if we were hit on the waterline by a couple of them we'd sink.'stuck an arm out sideways. 'But don't their guns point out at right angles, like ours? Surely they can't shoot straight ahead or behind?'

'Yes, they're broadside guns, and we could keep out of their arc of fire. But they could use their bow and stern chasers.'looked puzzled.

'Most ships have two special ports aft and two forward. You just haul round a couple of broadside guns and aim 'em through the ports,' he explained, gesturing aft. 'That's what those two ports are for.'

'But can't we risk being shot at by just two guns?' Antonio persisted. 'After all, they'll be rolling, and without sails they can't swing the ship round to aim a broadside, can they?'

'No, but even if she had no guns, how can we possibly capture two hundred and fifty men who'd strongly object to us boarding the ship, let alone take them prisoner?'

'Well, if they haven't any guns,' interrupted Gianna triumphantly, 'why can't we just keep shooting at them until they surrender?'

'I didn't say they haven't any guns,' Ramage said, fighting to conceal his exasperation. 'I simply said "If they hadn't" - but they have.'

'Oh well, it's a pity. We should cut a fine figure towing that big ship into Gibraltar.'

'If you can imagine a little donkey pulling a large cart loaded with blocks of Carrara marble all the way over the Alps, that's about how we'd be towing that. She displaces - if you put her on the scales you'd find she weighs about 1,300 tons against our 160 tons.'

'Less the weight of her masts!' Antonio exclaimed.

'Masts, spars, bowsprit, jibboom, rigging, blocks, sails and boats. Yes,' Ramage conceded ironically, 'you can deduct about a hundred tons - a little less than the weight of the Kathleen.called. 'You can just see her now, sir.'spotted the small black shape just beginning to rise over the curvature of the earth as the Kathleen approached, and pointed her out to Gianna. The frigate was about eleven miles away. He glanced astern at the cutter's wake; she was making between five and six knots, so it would be nearly two hours before they'd be within gunshot. Close enough, rather, to make out her name.wondered afterwards why he corrected himself and why he went below and changed from his best uniform into an older one that bright sun, salt spray and his steward's constant spongings and brushings had reduced to the pleasantly faded blue that he preferred to the original colour.THREE's cabin for the time being was Southwick's, who in turn had taken over that of the next senior, John Appleby, the master's mate. He had just finished changing when Gianna called from her cabin. Her face was serious as she motioned him to shut the door and, not knowing what she was going to say, Ramage first told the sentry to station himself a few feet away, out of earshot.at the little desk, the chair swung round to face him, she reached up with her right hand and traced the scar over his brow. 'Nico...?'

'Marchesa...?'

'My Lord...?'both laughed with embarrassment over her difficulty in starting whatever she wanted to discuss, and he said: 'Clench your hands, shut your eyes, and say it!'

'It isn't my business, Nico, but...'

'But...?'

'... but is it wise to leave this Spanish ship with—'

'Without letting you leap on board, capture her single-handed and hoist the flag of Volterra?'

'Be serious, Nico! I mean, couldn't people say you ran away - that you refused to try to capture her?'

'Some may, and probably will. Others will say it'd be madness even to attempt anything against a ship eight times the size of the Kathleen. Others - and they'd include Admiral Sir John Jervis and Commodore Nelson - would say I'm already disobeying orders even by going close enough to identify her. You realize the Commodore ordered me to take you and Antonio to Gibraltar as quickly as possible by the safest possible route? That means whatever we meet I have to run away, not fight.'

'Yes, but Antonio's afraid that since neither Sir John nor the Commodore are at Gibraltar, one of your father's enemies might be there to make trouble, as they did at Bastia. After all, who knows what might have happened there if the Commodore hadn't arrived in the middle of that mockery of a court martial?'he'd been thinking of all this long before Jackson identified the ship as Spanish, Ramage knew Gianna's fears were well founded. It was difficult being in the Service as the only son of John Uglow Ramage, tenth Earl of Blazey, Admiral of the White, Cornish landowner, man of honour and bravery - and also, after Admiral Byng, the most celebrated political scapegoat of the century; a man whose honour and career, and almost his life, had been snatched away from him by the Government to use as props to keep itself in office. Yes, it was difficult and at times seemed impossible; but...

'What are you thinking, Nico?'a few moments he'd forgotten she was there. 'Just something my mother once said - that I had the same fault as my father.'

'What is that?' she asked quickly, revealing a sudden fear.

'That neither of us will bother with an easy problem - someone has to say it's impossible before we make any effort.'

'I'd have thought that's halfway between a fault and a virtue.'kissed her and led the way up on deck, walking to a carronade away from the rest of the men. While he stood with one foot on the slide facing outboard she leaned back against the bulwark, the sunlight on her hair making it glint blue-black like a raven's feathers, and as she turned to look at the strange ship Ramage wished he was a painter to capture on canvas the splendid, patrician profile outlined against the almost harsh blue of the sea and sky. The small, slightly hooked nose and high cheekbones, the large brown eyes and delicate ears revealed by the swept-back hair gave her features the classicism of a Roman bust but belied the warm, generous lips.he turned away and looked round the cutter. It was in his power to have this deck swept by enemy shot, their impact gouging out swathes of great splinters and sending them scything through the air, slicing off limbs and stabbing men. Within a couple of hours, at a word from him, the newly scrubbed decks he'd just inspected could be daubed with the blood of these men now standing round laughing and joking, no doubt repeating every witty jeer they'd ever heard against the seamanship, courage and sexual prowess of the Spaniards.said softly, 'Can you hear what the men are saying?'

'I wasn't listening.'

'Listen now then.'did not know whether to tell them in anger to be silent, shake them by the hand with pride, or to stop listening in shame. Every man was speculating about the prize money they'd receive when they towed the frigate into Gibraltar. For them it was a foregone conclusion, Ramage realized bitterly, that their captain would capture the ship, but none seemed to realize it'd require magic to make the Spanish ship surrender...

'You see?' she said.came up rubbing his hands and mustering a laugh so bloodthirsty that Ramage thought the villain in a melodrama at a Haymarket theatre would have been proud of it. Gone was the Master's look of a country parson; despite the chubby face and mop of flowing white hair, the prospect of battle had transformed his appearance from a benign curer of souls to a dedicated and ruthless curer of skins; his face was flushed, his hair seemed to bristle, and his eyes were bloodshot.

'I thought it'd be a good idea to start the men rousing out one of the thirteen-inch cables, sir,' he said briskly. 'It'll take a bit of time, and though the eight-inch'd be easier because it's not so heavy, I thought it might part and still leave us with having to use the thirteen-inch.'began rubbing his brow, caught Gianna's eye, and instead of ordering Southwick to leave the cable stowed said lamely, to give himself time to think, 'Very well, Mr. Southwick.'Master was too excited to notice the lack of enthusiasm in the flat voice and trotted off forward to supervise the shifting of more than two tons of heavy, stiff and immensely strong cable.had heard Ramage make that formal response 'Very well' dozens of times; but there had never been that undertone of - well, almost despair. His face betrayed nothing; but that instinctive rubbing of the scar warned her his mind was in a turmoil. She guessed he was being tugged this way by the precise wording of his orders, another by the shadow of his father's trial, yet a third by the assumption of Southwick and the crew that they'd capture the frigate. And perhaps duty and honour told him to steer yet a fourth course.knew instinctively that if he obeyed his orders and left the frigate alone he would probably be safe; but that lean and tanned face, those deep-set eyes, naturally proud bearing, also told her that whatever he did, he had to live with himself afterwards; that while others praised his bravery he could condemn himself for cowardice simply because at some point he felt a moment of fear. She knew this only because she too had experienced it: she recalled setting her horse at an apparently impossible fence and successfully clearing it to the almost hysterical cheers of her family, but she had ridden on to avoid facing them because she knew she had failed herself; because, in the instant before knowing whether the horse would jump or refuse, fear had paralysed her. Ruefully she reflected the price she'd paid to learn that if you were to lead successfully, whether a kingdom or a ship's company, the only standards worth bothering with were those you set yourself; those of others were, well, those of the mob; those who were led, who had neither the ability nor the courage to sit alone and make the decisions.in the foot resting on the carronade slide reminded Ramage time was passing quickly; he had to make up his mind in the next few minutes, before the ox-like enthusiasm of Southwick and the ship's company swayed his judgment. The situation was simple enough - once you stripped away the details (and left out any thought of the consequences and the orders locked in the desk).could leave the Don severely alone after identifying her, note her position and pass it to the next British warship he met. Or he could - well, easier to see first what he could not do. Obviously he couldn't capture her by boarding because his men were out-numbered at least four to one. Nor could he sink her by gunfire. So Southwick's preparations for towing were laughable.... he had to admit frightened men bolted from shadows; drowning men clutched at straws. From bitter experience he knew the next most alarming thing to water flooding into a ship faster than the pumps could clear it was to be dismasted; the ship was utterly helpless and at the mercy of wind and current. Without the steadying effect of masts and spars the ship rolled like a pig in a midden, and as the Spaniards hadn't rigged jury masts yet, perhaps they couldn't. They were hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish or French port, and well off the normal routes, so only a miracle could send another Spanish ship their way. And not a hundred miles to the south was the African coast, where almost every bay was the base for the Barbary pirates who'd cut their throats just for the fun of it and whose fast galleys rowed by Christian slaves often frequented this area ... Yes, the Spaniards would be frightened men, frightened where the whims of wind and current would take them; frightened that a dozen Barbary galleys would get alongside in the dark and put several hundred pirates on board. But at the moment they probably weren't frightened enough to grasp at a straw. They'd need just a little extra, just enough to turn fear into panic...he only could bluff the Dons into believing he could destroy their ship if they didn't accept his alternative - to surrender and be towed ... But having achieved that piece of wizardry, was the little Kathleen capable of towing the hulk? He couldn't remember a precedent, and there was only one way of finding out.looked across at the hulk yet again, cursing the fate that had left it within sight of his lookout, and conscious the seamen round him were still laughing and joking, and that Gianna was watching. Southwick's cheerful curses were streaming up from forward, hurrying the men rousing out the cable.'Ramage looked at every alternate seaman on deck. He knew them all by name, knew most of their faults and merits. He'd promoted several and liked them all. Then he glanced at Gianna and Antonio and deliberately forced himself to imagine them all sprawled on the deck dead, lying in pools of their own blood, as the Kathleen tried to claw away from the frigate's broadsides because he'd miscalculated and the Spaniards had called his bluff.had everything to lose - his ship, his life, Gianna, the ship's company who blindly and cheerfully put their trust in him - and, by comparison, very little to gain if he succeeded. Perhaps a few grudging words of qualified praise from Sir John and the Commodore, but no more since he'd have paid scant attention to his orders. Certainly he wouldn't get a Gazette letter because, although success avoided awkward questions being asked, he could hardly expect a reward for virtual disobedience.admiral's dispatch to the Admiralty praising an officer and subsequently printed in the Gazette was the dream of everyone, from a midshipman to a senior officer, since it meant a lot in gaining promotion (providing, he thought ruefully, the person mentioned survived the action the letter described).even think about trying to tackle the frigate? Was he juggling with the stuff of dreams? Or - and it was a sobering thought - was he becoming a compulsive gambler, like one of those pale, twitching, glassy-eyed men who haunted White's, driven to that fashionable gambling den by some inner demon to risk half a fortune on the night's turn of the cards or roll of the dice? Risking a well-loved estate, wife, children, position in society, for an urge about as noble - and apparently as hard to resist - as the need to relieve himself?was surprised how dispassionately he saw the situation. His father would be proud if he succeeded - and just as proud if he failed in the attempt, because above all he'd want him to try. Gianna really knew nothing of the problems and was young and impulsive, yet she wanted him to try, perhaps for the same reason as his father, but also because she enjoyed adventure. His rescue of her from under the noses of the advancing French had also rescued her from the prison that was the life of a young woman heading one of the most powerful families in Tuscany, and whose mother had brought her up as a boy in a desperate attempt to fit her for the task of ruling that turbulent little state.suddenly turned and walked towards the fo'c'sle, trying to break away from the torrent of thoughts and misgivings. Ahead lay the hulk, placed there by the vagary of a single thunderstorm. But before he was abreast the mast he suddenly knew that whatever happened he was going to try to do something, for the simple and singular reason that like those contemptible and pallid creatures at White's, he couldn't resist the challenge, and the thought made him feel guilty.hustled up the companionway buckling on a sword - or what passed for a sword, Ramage thought wryly, since the cutler who'd fashioned it must have drawn his inspiration from a butcher's cleaver, a Saracen's scimitar, an overgrown claymore and a West Indian machete.

'Glad she's a Don, sir,' the Master grunted, drawing in his bulging stomach to hitch in the belt buckle another notch. 'Easier to deal with than Frogs, 'ticularly as they've only been in the war a few weeks. They'll be jumpy, and I bet the Fleet was manned with a hot press o' yokels who still don't know a yardarm from a farmyard.'

'Maybe, but don't forget she's probably carrying a lot of soldiers as supernumeraries.'

'The more the better,' Southwiek said cheerfully, attempting yet another notch in his belt, 'they'll get in the way o' the sailors.'

‘I hope so, but unless you're a betting man, never forecast the result on the day of the race.'looked up in surprise. 'Why, I suppose not, sir, but,' he added with a broad grin, 'I'm a betting man today!'

'Very well,' Ramage said ironically, 'if you've placed your wagers and the jockeys are booted and spurred, we'll get ready for the first race. Beat to quarters, Mr. Southwiek.'Jackson from his position high up on the cro'jack yard heard the staccato but rhythmic beat of the drum sending the men to quarters he felt a considerable relief. He'd kept one eye on the wallowing hulk and one eye on Mr. Ramage standing at the carronade below, and he wasn't sure which worried him most.once the American was glad he was only a seaman. He knew better than most of the ship's company Mr. Ramage's loneliness in deciding what to do. Jackson admitted he didn't fancy the idea of tackling the Don because he firmly believed Nature intended that only knaves and politicians should be forced to risk their lives unnecessarily. Yet at the same time he didn't fancy leaving the hulk just wallowing there, like a ripe peach waiting to be plucked (although by a bigger hand than the Kathleen) and turned over to the prize agent.for the life of him he couldn't see how they'd get her to surrender and be taken in tow. However, the drum was beating to quarters so obviously Mr. Ramage had finally thought of a way. That scar on his forehead must be burnished by now, the way he'd been rubbing it. Jackson tried to think what the plan could be, failed, totted up the weight of the frigate's broadsides - or even just her stern and bow chasers - and finally decided miracles were needed rather than plans.steadied himself against the occasional wild, inverted pendulum swing of the mast as the cutter heeled to heavier gusts of wind, and looked again at the hulk ringed in the lens of the telescope. A sudden movement and flurry of colour at her taffrail made him grip the brass tube tighter. Hmm, they were hoisting a flag on a pike, or something. The wind caught it and blew it clear. Horizontal stripes of red, gold and red!

'Deck there!' he yelled. 'The frigate's showing Spanish colours. Using an oar or a pike as a staff.'

'Very well, Jackson,' he heard Mr. Ramage reply, as though he'd known she would eventually. 'Can you see if she has any boats at all?'trained the telescope again. The deck was bare, so she'd lost the boom boats. Ah, a sea was pushing her stern round. Yes, there was one in the water - they probably used it to cut away the wreckage.

'Deck there! I can only see one - lying astern to its painter.'on earth was Mr. Ramage worrying about boats for? Oh yes - if they had three or four boats, they could tow the hulk's bow or stern round to train the broadside guns. He shrugged his shoulders; it was a small thing yet it showed Mr. Ramage was thorough. But come to think of it, he told himself ruefully, it wasn't a small thing; the Dons' ability to train their guns meant all the difference between tackling a couple of stern chasers or a full broadside.him the boy drummer was still rattling away, his drum seeming as big as he was himself. Watching from such a vantage point as the men went to quarters, Jackson realized the value of the last fortnight's constant training: no man took an unnecessary pace nor got in anyone else's way; no one ran or shouted. Yet already the lashings had been cast off the carronades, gun captains had collected their locks and trigger lines and were fitting them, with horns of priming powder slung around their necks, and the sponges, rammers and wormers were beside each gun. The head pumps were already squirting streams of water across the deck ahead of four men walking aft in line abreast and scattering handfuls of sand as though they were sowing corn, the sand ensuring no one should slip, the water ensuring no spilled gunpowder would be ignited by friction.men were hoisting up the grindstone from below while several more stood waiting to use it, arms laden with cutlasses, pikes and tomahawks taken from the racks. Other seamen rolled small wooden tubs into position near the guns and half-filled them with fresh water from the scuttle-butt, so the guns' crews could refresh themselves in action. Other wider but shallower tubs were being dragged between the guns and filled with sea water to wet the 'woolly 'eaded bastards', the sponges which would swab out the barrels and douse any burning residue left behind after a round had been fired and also cool the barrel. Several tubs with notches cut round the top edge were in position and the long, worm-like slow matches, already lit, had been fitted in the notches with their glowing ends hanging down over the water out of the way of stray powder, but ready for use should a flint in the lock of a gun fail to spark.American pictured the scene below deck round the magazine: screens would have been unrolled, hanging down like thick blankets, and soaked with water to prevent the flash from an accidental explosion from getting into the magazine itself, where the small cylindrical bags of gunpowder for the carronades were stacked. Outside the screens all the young powder boys would be waiting. They'd be chattering with excitement and waiting to be handed the cartridges, which they would put into their wooden cartridge boxes, slide the lids down the rope handles, and scurry up on deck to their respective guns, dreaming of glory, fearing death, but more scared of a gun captain's bellow should they delay reloading for a second.rumbling noise made Jackson think of Mr. Ramage, who could not stand the scraping of metal on stone. The men had the grindstone turning and he saw Mr. Southwick, a great curved sword in his hand, gesticulating to a man to pour more water on the spinning wheel and then begin to hone the blade with the skill of a butcher, pausing every few seconds to sight the edge against the sun and finger it gently.sight of Ramage looking up at him, Jackson hurriedly raised the telescope to look at the frigate.

'Jackson! If you're so interested in what's going on down here you'd better leave the telescope with the lookout and reload my pistols.'

'Aye aye, sir.' Thankfully the American started down the ratlines.cursed as the reflection showed he'd honed a slight flat into one side of the curved blade, but that bit of carelessness would have to be removed later because the men with the cutlasses were impatient to get at the stone. Southwick loved his sword and as he slid it into the rawhide scabbard, which was itself stiff enough to break a man's arm with a single blow, he reflected that it was a real fighting sword, heavy yet balanced, and the rasping of the shagreen covering on the handle against the palm of his hand reminded him he personally caught the shark, cured the skin and fitted it on himself. No, his sword wasn't one of those strips of tin decked out in pinchbeck wire that was only fit to wear on ceremonial occasions; it was a man's sword.of the effect his own enthusiasm had had on his captain's thoughts and decisions during the past fifteen minutes, Southwick would have given anything to know what was in Ramage's mind; what his plan was to capture the frigate. To the Master the whole thing looked impossible, and he'd been in half a mind to tell Mr. Ramage so but couldn't think of a tactful way of saying it. Anyway, the captain had looked confident enough from the time the hulk first hove up over the horizon, and had guessed she was a Don long before she'd shown her colours. So obviously he had a plan, though Southwick admitted that if it'd been up to him he'd have squared away for Gibraltar by now, merely noting in the log the time the Spaniard's colours had been hoisted, and her position.to weather of the men at the tiller, Ramage appeared confident enough in his faded blue uniform and a battered hat, wh


Date: 2015-01-11; view: 430


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