Aboard the Hyperion, Richard Bolitho sets sail with an untrained crew for blockade duty off France. Unfortunately, his superior, Commodore Mathias Pelham-Martin, is an incompetent egotist whose petty hostilities jeopardize the operation of an entire fleet.
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Alexander Kent, pen name of Douglas Edward Reeman, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1 A Time for Parting
The tall window of the Golden Lion Inn which faced south across Plymouth Sound shivered violently in its frame as another freak gust speckled the glass with drizzle and blown spray.
Captain Richard Bolitho had been standing with his back to a blazing log fire, his hands behind him, as he stared unseeingly at the bedroom carpet, and the sudden flurry of wind made him look up, his mind dragging with the mixed emotions of urgency and a new, alien sense of apprehension at leaving the land.
He crossed quickly to the window and stood looking down across the deserted roadway, the shining cobbles and the grey tossing water beyond. It was eight o'clock in the morning, but being the first day of November was still almost too dark to see much more than a blurred grey panorama through the dappled glass. He could hear voices beyond the bedroom door, the sounds of horses and wheels in the yard below, and knew that the moment of parting had almost arrived. He stooped over a long brass telescope which was mounted on a tripod by the window, no doubt for the benefit of inn guests or the amusement of those who saw the passing ships-of-war as nothing more than things of beauty or momentary distraction. It was strange to realise that 1794 was drawing to a close, that England had been at war with Revolutionary France for nearly two years, and still there were many people who were either indifferent or totally unaware of their peril. Perhaps the news had been too good, he thought vaguely, and certainly this year had gone well at sea. Howe's conquest, the Glorious First of June as it was now called, Jarvis's capture of the French West Indian islands, and even the taking of Corsica in the Mediterranean should have meant that the way was already opening up for total victory. But Bolitho knew better than to accept such ready judgements. The war was spreading in every direction, so that it seemed as if it would eventually engulf the whole world. And England, in spite of her ships, was being forced back further and further upon her own resources.
He eased the telescope carefully to one side, seeing the serried whitecaps cruising across the Sound, the wedge of headland and the hurrying ranks of leaden clouds. The wind was freshening from the north-west and there was a hint of snow in the air.
He held his breath and steadied the glass on a solitary ship which lay far out, seemingly motionless and making the only patch of colour against the bleak sea.
The Hyperion, his ship, was waiting for him. It was hard, no impossible, to picture her as the battered, shot-scarred two-decker he had brought to Plymouth six months earlier after her desperate fight in the Mediterranean following Hood's failure to hold and occupy Toulon. Six months of pleading and bribing, of bullying dockyard workers and watching over every phase of the old ship's repairs and refit. And she was old.
Twenty-two years had passed since her good Kentish oak had first tasted salt water, and almost all the time she had been in continuous commission. From the freezing misery of the Atlantic to maddening calms in the Indies. From the broadsides of the Mediterranean to patient blockade duty off one enemy port or another.
When she had been docked Bolitho had seen weed nearly six feet long scraped from her fat bilges. No wonder she had been so slow. Now, outwardly at least, she looked a new ship.
He watched the strange silvery light play across her tall side as she swung heavily at her anchor. Even at this distance he could see the taut black tracery of her rigging and shrouds, the double line of gun-ports, the small scarlet rectangle made by her ensign as it stood out in the freshening wind.
Once it had seemed as if the refit, the work and delays would never end. Then in the last few weeks she had returned to the waiting sea, her rigging had been set up, her seventy-four guns replaced, the deep-bellied hull filled with stores, provisions, powder and shot. And men.
Bolitho straightened his back. Six months was a long while to be away from her natural element. This time she would not be returning with the seasoned, well-disciplined company he had taken command of sixteen months ago, most of whom had been aboard for four years. In that time you could expect even the dullest landsman to find his place in things. But those men had been paid off. Not to a well-earned rest, but scattered to the demands of an ever-growing fleet, leaving him with only a few of the senior ones who were needed to deal with the ship's more intimate repairs.
For weeks his new company had been gathered from every available source. From other ships, the port admiral, and even the local Assizes. At his own expense, but with little hope, Bolitho had sent handbills and two recruiting parties in the search for new men, and had been astonished when some forty Cornishmen had arrived on board. Most were landsmen, from farms or the mines, but all were volunteers.
The lieutenant who had brought them aboard had been full of compliments and something like awe, for it was rare indeed to volunteer to leave the land for the harsh discipline and hazards of life in a King's ship. Bolitho could still not believe that these men actually wanted to serve with him, a fellow Cornishman, one whose name was well known and admired throughout their native county. He was completely baffled by it and not a little moved.
Now that was all in the past. Crammed within the one-hundred-and-eighty-foot hull his new company was waiting for him. The man who, next to God, would control their lives. Whose judgement and skill, whose bravery or otherwise would decide whether they lived or died. Hyperion was still some fifty short of her six hundred complement, but that was little enough in these hard times. Her real weakness lay in the immediate future, the days when he would have to drive every man in order to weld them all into one trained community.
He came out of his brooding thoughts as the door opened, and when he turned he saw his wife framed in the entrance. She was dressed in a long green velvet cloak, the hood thrown back from her rich chestnut hair, and her eyes were very bright, so that he suspected the tears were only just held in check.
He crossed the room and took her hands. It was still difficult to understand the good fortune which had made her his wife. She was beautiful and ten years younger than he, and as he looked down at her he knew that leaving her now was the hardest thing he had ever done. Bolitho was thirty-seven years old, and had been at sea from the age of twelve. During that time, as he survived both hardship and danger, he had often felt something akin to contempt for the men who preferred to stay in the safety of their homes rather than sail in a King's ship. He had been married to Cheney for five months, and now he understood just how agonising such partings could be.
During the long refit she had never been far from his side. It had been a new and devastatingly happy time, in spite of the ship's needs and the daily work which took him to the dockyard. Mostly he had spent his nights ashore with her in the inn, and sometimes they had gone for long walks above the sea, or had taken a pair of horses as far as Dartmoor. That was until she had told him she was going to have his child, when she had laughed at his immediate concern and protective uncertainty.
He said, "Your hands are like ice, my dear."
She smiled. "I have been down in the yard telling Allday how to unpack some of the things I have prepared for you." Again the tilt of the chin, the slight quiver in her lip. "Remember, Richard, you are married now. I'll not have my captain as thin as a rake for want of good food."
From the stairway Bolitho heard Allday's discreet cough. At least he would be with him. His coxswain, the man who next to his old friend Herrick probably knew him better than anyone.
He said quickly, "Now you will take care, Cheney?" He squeezed her hands tightly. "When you get back to Falmouth there will be plenty of friends if you need anything."
She nodded, then reached out and touched his white-lapelled coat and rested her fingers on his sword hilt. "I will be waiting for you, my dear Richard." She dropped her eyes. "And if you are at sea when our child is born you will still be with me."
Allday's stocky figure rounded the side of the door.
"The barge is waiting, Captain. I've stowed all the gear as ma'am ordered." He looked at her admiringly. "And never fret, ma'am, I'll take good care of him."
She gripped Bolitho's arm fiercely and whispered, "See that you do. And pray God will keep both of you safe!"
Bolitho prised her fingers away and kissed her gently. He felt wretched and wished he had words to make the parting easier. At the same time he knew that there were no such words, nor ever had been.
He picked up his gold-laced hat and tugged it down across his forehead. Then he held her in his gaze for a few more seconds, feeling their pain, understanding their loss, and then without another word turned and strode to the stairs.
The landlord bowed as he crossed to the main doors, his round face solemn as he intoned, "Good luck, Cap'n! Kill a few o' they Frogs for us'n!" Bolitho nodded curtly and allowed Allday to wrap the thick boat-cloak around his shoulders. The landlord's words were meaningless, he thought. He probably said exactly the same to the endless procession of captains and sea officers who stayed briefly beneath his roof before returning to their ships, some for the last time.
He caught sight of himself in a wall mirror beside the ostler's bell and saw that he was frowning. But what a difference the past six months had made. The realisation made him stare at himself for several moments. The deep lines around his mouth had faded, and his tall figure looked more relaxed than he could remember. His black hair was without a trace of grey, in spite of the fever which had nearly killed him between the wars, and the one lock which still curled rebelliously above his right eye made him look younger than his years. He saw Allday watching him and forced a smile.
Allday threw open the doors and touched his hat. "It seems like a long while since we were to sea, Captain." He grinned. "I'll not be sorry to leave. The Plymouth wenches are not what they were."
Bolitho walked past him and felt the rain across his face like ice rime. He quickened his pace with Allday striding comfortably behind him. The ship was lying a good two miles offshore, both to take advantage of the wind and tide and to deter any would-be deserter. The barge crew would have a hard pull to reach her.
He paused above the jetty stairs feeling the wind swirling around him, the land beneath his feet, and knowing as he always did that he might never set foot ashore again. Or worse, he might return as some helpless cripple, armless or eyeless, like so many who thronged the waterfront taverns as reminders of the war which was always present, even if unseen.
He turned to look back at the inn and imagined he could see her in the window.
Then he said, "Very well, Allday, call the barge alongside."
Once clear of the jetty wall the oars seemed to make the boat skim across the low cruising whitecaps, and as Bolitho sat huddled in his cloak he wished that he had a whole ship's company like these bargemen. For they were his original barge crew, and in their white trousers and check shirts, with their pigtails and tanned faces they looked every inch the landsman's idea of British sailors.
The barge's motion became heavier as it plunged clear of the shore, and Bolitho settled down to watch his ship as she grew slowly out of the haze of spray and drizzle until the towering masts and yards and the neatly furled sails seemed to fill the horizon. It was a normal illusion but one which never failed to impress him. Once, when a mere child, he had gone to join his first ship, of similar size to Hyperion, but in those tender years she had seemed even larger and more than a little frightening. As this ship must now seem to the newly gathered men, he thought, both the volunteers and those pressed from safer lives ashore.
Allday swung the tiller and guided the barge past the high bows so that the gilt figurehead of Hyperion the Sun God seemed to reach with his trident right above their heads.
Bolitho could hear the twitter of pipes carried on the wind, and saw the scarlet-coated marines already mustered by the entry port, the blue and white of the officers and the anonymous press of figures beyond.
He wondered what Inch, his first lieutenant, would be thinking about this moment of departure. He wondered, too, what had made him retain the young lieutenant when plenty of senior ones had been ready to take such a coveted appointment. Next in line to a ship's captain there was always the chance, even the hope that promotion would come by that captain's sudden death or advancement to flag rank.
When he had taken command of the old seventy-four Bolitho had found Inch as the fifth and junior lieutenant. Service away from the land and often far from the fleet had guided the young officer's feet up the ladder of promotion as one officer after the other had died. When the first lieutenant had taken his own life Bolitho's friend Thomas Herrick had been on hand to take over, but now even he had left the ship with a captain's rank and a ship of his own. And so, Lieutenant Francis Inch, gangling, horse-faced and ever-eager, had got his chance. For some reason, not really understood by Bolitho himself, he was being allowed to keep it. But the thought of taking the ship to sea as second-in-command for the very first time might make him view his new status with misgivings and no little anxiety.
"Boat ahoy?" The customary challenge floated down the ship's side.
Allday cupped his hand. "Hyperion!"
As the oars were tossed and the bowman hooked on to the chains, Bolitho slipped out of his cloak, and clutching his sword to his hip jumped quickly for the entry port. And he was not even breathless. He found time to marvel at what good food and regular exercise ashore could do for one so long cramped and adjusted to shipboard life.
As his head came above the coaming the pipes broke into a shrill twitter, and he saw the sharp jerk of muskets as the marine guard came to the present.
Inch was there, bobbing anxiously, his uniform soaked with rain so that Bolitho guessed he had not left the quarterdeck since first light. The din ceased and Inch said, "Welcome aboard, sir."
Bolitho smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Inch." He looked around at the watching men. "You have been busy."
Inch was peering at the barge and was about to call to its crew when Bolitho said quietly, "No, Mr. Inch, that is no longer your work." He saw Inch staring at him. "Leave it to your subordinates. If you trust them they will come to trust you."
He heard heavy footsteps on the ...
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Book Description Arrow, 1974. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0099055201
Book Description ARROW BOOKS LTD, 1974. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 99055201
Book Description ARROW BOOKS LTD, 1974. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0099055201
Book Description Arrow. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0099055201 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW6.0039107