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THE INSHORE SQUADRON
(Bolitho – 15)
It was ten of April morn by the chime;
As they drifted on their path,
There was silence deep as death
And the boldest held his breath
For a time.
From The Battle of the Baltic
by THOMAS CAMPBELL
1. We Happy Few
Admiral Sir George Beauchamp held his thin hands towards the blazing log fire and rubbed his palms slowly together to restore his circulation.
He was a small, stooped figure, made fragile by his heavy dress coat and gold epaulettes, but there was nothing frail about his mind or the sharpness of his eyes.
It had been a long, tiresome ride from London to Portsmouth, the journey worsened by autumn rain and deeply rutted roads. And Beauchamp's.one night's rest in the George Inn on Portsmouth Point had been ruined by a fierce gale which had changed the Solent into a raging mass of white horses and made all but the largest vessels scurry for shelter.
Beauchamp turned from the fire and surveyed his private room, the one he always used when he came to Portsmouth, like many important admirals before him. Now the gale had receded and the thick glass windows shone like metal in sunlight, a deception, because beyond the stout walls the air was chilled, with a hint of winter to come.
The little admiral sighed aloud, something he would never have done if company had been present. Late September 18oo, seven years of war with France and her allies.
Once, Beauchamp had envied his contemporaries, at sea in every quarter of the globe, in their fleets, squadrons or flotillas. But in weather like this he was more than satisfied with his office of Admiralty where his shrewd mind as a planner and strategist had won him much respect. Beauchamp had sent more than one flag officer to ignominy, and had placed his confidence in other, more junior men whose experience and ability had been previously overlooked.
Seven years o f war. He turned the thought over in his mind.
Victories and defeats, good ships left to rot until the enemy were almost at the gates, brave men and fools, mutinies and triumphs. Beauchamp had seen it all, had watched new leaders emerging to replace the failures and the tyrants. Collingwood and Troubridge, Hardy and Saumarez, and, of course, the public's darling, Horatio Nelson.
Beauchamp gave a thin smile. Nelson was what the country needed, the very stuff of victory. But he could not see the hero of the Nile enduring the work of Admiralty like himself. Sitting at endless policy meetings, smoothing the fears of King and Parliament, guiding those less eager towards positive action. No, he decided, Nelson would not last a month in Whitehall, any more than he would in a flagship. Beauchamp was over sixty and looked it. He sometimes felt older than time itself.
There was a discreet tap on the door and his secretary peered warily in at him.
'Are you ready, Sir George?'
'Yes.' It sounded like o f course. 'Ask him to come up.'
Beauchamp never stopped working. But he enjoyed seeing his plans come to fruition, his choices for leadership and command rising to his severe standards.
Like his visitor, for instance. Beauchamp looked at the polished doors, the sunlight reflecting on a decanter of claret and two finely cut glasses.
Richard Bolitho, stubborn about some things, unorthodox in others, was one of Beauchamp's rewards. Just three years ago he had appointed him commodore over a handful of ships and sent him into the Mediterranean to seek out and discover the French intentions. He had been a good choice. The rest was history; Bolitho's swift actions and the later arrival of Nelson with a full fleet at his disposal to smash the French squadrons into defeat at the Battle of the Nile. Bonaparte's hopes for a total conquest of Egypt and India had been destroyed.
Now Bolitho was here, but as a newly appointed rear-admiral, a flag officer in his own right with all the doubts behind him. His secretary opened the door.
'Rear-Admiral Richard Bolitho, sir.'
Beauchamp held out his hand, feeling the usual mixture of pleasure and envy. Bolitho looked very well in his new gold
laced coat, he thought, and yet the transition had left the man unchanged. The same black hair with the rebellious lock above his right eye, the level gaze and grave expression which hid the adventurer and at the same time concealed the man's humility which Beauchamp had discovered for himself.
Bolitho saw the scrutiny and smiled.
'It is good to see you, sir.'
Beauchamp gestured to the table. 'Pour, will you. I'm a mite stiff.'
Bolitho watched his hand as he held the decanter above the glasses, steady and firm, when it should be shaking with the excitement he really felt. When he had seen his own reflection in a mirror he had scarcely been able to accept that he had made the final, definite step from captaincy to flag rank. Now he was a rear-admiral, one of the youngest ever appointed, but apart from the uniform, the gleaming epaulettes, each with the solitary silver star, he felt much as before. Surely something should have happened? He had always assumed that the move from wardroom to captain's cabin would alter a man. But the stride from it to the right of hoisting his own flag was like ten leagues by comparison.
Only in others had he seen any real difference. His coxswain, John Allday, could barely stop himself from beaming with pleasure. And when he had visited the Admiralty he had seen the amusement on his superiors' faces when he had shown caution with his ideas. Now, they listened to his suggestions, when before someone might have crushed him into silence. They did not always agree, but they heard him out. That was a change indeed.
Beauchamp eyed him severely above his glass. 'Well, Bolitho, you've got your way, and I've got mine.' He glanced at the nearest window, steamy with the room's heat. 'A squadron of your own. Four ships of the line, two frigates and a sloop of war. You'll be receiving orders from your admiral, but it will be up to you to translate them, eh?'
They clinked their glasses, each suddenly wrapped in his own thoughts.
To Beauchamp it meant a fresh, young squadron, a weapon to fit into the complex of war. To Bolitho it meant a lot more. Beauchamp had done everything to help him. Even to his choice
of captains. All but one of them he knew well, and with good reason, and some he knew like old friends.
Most of them had something in common in that each had served with or under him in the past. Bolitho glanced around the room. In this same room, nineteen years ago, he had been given his first major command, and in many ways his best remembered. In her he had found Thomas Herrick, who had become his first lieutenant and his loyal friend. In the same unhappy ship he had also met John Neale, a twelve-year-old midshipman. Neale was in his squadron now, a captain commanding a frigate of his own.
`Aye, sir. Ships and faces.'
That said it all. Bolitho had gone to sea, like Neale, at the age of twelve. Now he was a rear-admiral, the impossible dream. Too many times he had stood eye to eye with death, too often he had seen others fall about him to hold much confidence beyond the month or the year.
`Your ships are all gathered here, Bolitho.' It was a statement. 'So there's no sense in wasting time. Get 'em to sea, exercise them as you know how, make them hate your guts, but forge them into steel!'
Bolitho smiled gravely. He was eager to leave. The land held nothing for him any more. He had visited Falmouth, his house and estate there. It had affected him in the same way as before. As if the house had been waiting for something. He had stood before her portrait in his bedroom several times. Listening to her voice. Hearing her laugh. Yearning for the girl he had married and lost almost, immediately in a tragic accident. Cheney. He had even spoken her name. As if to bring the picture to life. When he had left to make for London he had turned in the doorway to look at her face once more.
The sea-green eyes, like the water below Pendennis Castle, the flowing hair with the colour of new chestnuts. She, too, had appeared to be waiting.
He shook himself from his thoughts and remembered the one enjoyable thing he had shared when Herrick had returned to England in his old Lysander.
With surprisingly little hesitation Herrick had married the widow Dulcie Boswell whom he had met in the Mediterranean.
Bolitho had made the journey willingly to the small Kentish church on the road to Canterbury. The pews had been filled with Herrick's friends and neighbours, with a good sprinkling of blue and white from fellow sea officers.
Bolitho had felt strangely excluded, the feeling made harder to bear when he had recalled his own wedding at Falmouth, with Herrick beside him to offer the ring.
Then, as the bells chimed and Herrick had turned from the altar with his bride's hand on his gold-laced cuff, he had paused by Bolitho and had said simply, `You being here, sir, has made this just perfect for me.'
Beauchamp's voice intruded again. `I would like to take lunch with you, but I have business with the port admiral. And no doubt you've much to do. I'm obliged to you for many things, Bolitho.' He gave a wry smile. `Not least for accepting my suggestion for a flag lieutenant. I've had my fill of him in London!'
Bolitho guessed there was a lot more to the request than that but said nothing.
Instead he said, `I shall take my leave, sir. And thank you for seeing me.'
Beauchamp shrugged. It looked like a physical effort. 'Least I could do for you. You have your orders. You're not being offered an easy passage, but then you'd not have thanked me for one, eh?' He chuckled. `Just keep a weather eye open for trouble.' He fixed Bolitho with a flat stare. `I'll say no more than that. But your deeds, your rewards, well earned though they were, will have made you some enemies. Be warned.' He held out his hand. `Now be off with you, and mark what I said.'
Bolitho left the room and strode past several people who were waiting to see the fierce little admiral. For advice, for favours, for hope, who could say?
At the foot of the stairs, standing near a crowded coffee room, he saw Allday waiting for him. As always. He would never alter. The same homely face and broad grin whenever he was pleased. He had thickened out a bit, Bolitho thought, but he was like a rock. He smiled to himself. At any other time an inn servant would have hurried a mere coxswain round the back to the kitchens, or, more likely, outside into the cold.
But in his blue coat with its gilt buttons, new breeches and
polished leather boots he looked every inch an admiral's coxswain.
And how Allday had struggled over the past three years to call him sir. Before, he had always addressed Bolitho as captain. Now he was having to get used to a rear-admiral. Just that morning as they had left for Portsmouth from a friend's house where Bolitho had been staying for a few days, Allday had said cheerfully, `Never mind, sir. It'll be Sir Richard soon, and I can manage that well enough!'
Allday handed him his long boat-cloak and watched as Bolitho tugged his cocked hat firmly over his black hair.
`This is a moment, eh, sir?' He shook his head. `We've come a long road.'
Bolitho looked at him warmly. Allday usually managed to put his finger on it. Times and places, blue seas and grey ones. Danger with death swiftly on its heels. Allday was always there. Ready to help, to use his cheek as liberally as his courage in every situation. He was a real friend, although he could do much to try Bolitho's temper when he wanted to.
'Aye. In some ways it feels like beginning all over again.'
He glanced at himself in the wall mirror near the entrance, much as he had done when he had gone out to take command of the frigate Phalarope, younger then than any captain in his new squadron.
He thought suddenly of the country house where he had been staying, recalling one of the housemaids, a pretty girl with flaxen hair and a trim figure. He had seen Allday with her on several occasions and the thought troubled him. Allday had risked his life and had saved Bolitho's many times. Now they were off again, and Allday, because of his dogged loyalty, was being taken from the land once more.
Bolitho toyed with the idea of offering him a chance of freedom. To send him to Falmouth where he could live in peace, to stroll the foreshore and drink ale with other seafaring men. He had done more than his share for England, and there were plenty who never risked life and limb aloft in a gale or standing to the guns while the air was rent by the enemy's iron.
He saw Allday's face and decided against it. It would hurt and anger him. He would have felt the same way.
Bolitho said, `There'll be a few fathers looking for the sailor who wronged their daughters, eh, Allday?'
Their eyes met. It was a game they had learned to play very well.
Allday grinned. 'My thoughts, too, sir. It's time for a change.'
Captain Thomas Herrick walked from beneath the poop and stood with his hands behind his back while he allowed his mind and body to adjust to the ship and the cold, damp wind which dappled her decks with spray.
The forenoon was almost over, and with practised eye Herrick noted that the many seamen working about the decks and gangways, or high overhead on the yards, were moving more slowly, probably dwelling on the midday meal, the thoughts of rum, a moment's respite in the crowded life between decks.
Herrick let his gaze stray around the broad quarterdeck, the stiff-backed midshipman of the watch, obviously conscious of his captain's presence, the neat lines of guns, everything. He still could not get used to the ship. He had brought his old command, the Lysander of seventy-four guns, home after many months of continuous service. Age, storm-damage and the heavier strains of battle had left deep wounds in the old ship, and it had been no surprise to Herrick to be told to pay off his command and be prepared to turn Lysander over to the dockyard. He had gone through a lot in that ship, had learned even more about himself, his limitations and his skills. As flag captain to Commodore Richard Bolitho he had discovered more paths of duty than he had known existed.
Lysander would never stand in, the line of battle again. Too much damage had taken its toll, and her many years of service would probably be ignored and she would end her days as a store-ship, or worse, a prison hulk.
Her complement had been scattered throughout the fleet in an effort to feed the unending appetite of a navy at war. Herrick had seen it all before, and had wondered more than once what his own fate would be. To his astonishment he had been given this ship. His Britannic Majesty's seventy-four-gun ship of the line Benbow, absolutely new from her builders in the main dockyard at Devonport, the first new vessel Herrick had ever served in, let alone commanded.
He had been with her for months, worrying and working while the dockyard completed their part and Benbow grew and grew to her present appearance.
Everything was strange and untried, not least the men who were gathered into her eighteen-hundred-ton hull, and Herrick had blessed every ounce of experience which he had gained on his long climb up the ladder of advancement and service.