Alexander Kent Form Line of Battle!

ISBN 13: 9780099088509

Form Line of Battle!

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9780099088509: Form Line of Battle!

The scene is Gibraltar, 1793. The gathering might of revolutionary France prepares to engulf Europe in another bloody war. As in the past, Britain will stand or fall by the fighting power of her fleet. For Richard Bolitho, the renewal of hostilities means a fresh command and the chance of action.

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Chapter 1 The Old Hyperion

The frigate Harvester, nine days outward bound from Spithead, turned easily into the gentle offshore breeze and dropped anchor, the echoes of her gun salute reverberating and grumbling around the towering wall of Gibraltar's unchanging Rock. Her young captain let his eye rest a moment longer on the busy activity below the quarterdeck as his men threw themselves into the work of swaying out boats, urged on by sharp commands and more than one cuff from an impatient petty officer. Entering harbour was always a tense moment, and the captain knew that he was not the only one aboard who was aware of the big ships of the line anchored nearby, the largest of which wore a vice-admiral's flag at the fore, and no doubt there were several telescopes already trained on his small command ready to reprimand or criticise.

With a final glance he strode aft and crossed to the starboard side where a tall, solitary figure leaned against the hammock nettings.

"Shall I signal for a boat, sir? Or would one of mine be sufficient?"

Captain Richard Bolitho pulled himself from his thoughts and turned to face the other man.

"Thank you. Captain Leach, I will take yours. It will save time." He imagined he saw a touch of relief in the man's eyes, and realised that it could not have been easy for so young and junior a captain, who had not yet attained the coveted post rank, to carry him from England as a passenger.

He relaxed slightly and added, "You have a fine ship. We made a quick passage." He shivered in spite of the early morning sunlight and saw Leach watching him with new interest. But what could he understand of Bolitho's feelings? While the frigate had beaten down the English Channel and round Brest, where once more the British squadrons rode out all weathers to watch over a blockaded French fleet, Bolitho's thoughts had reached far beyond the plunging bowsprit to this moment only. Down across the Bay, with its blustering winds and savage currents, and still further south until the coast of Portugal loomed like a blue mist far abeam. He had had plenty of time to think of what lay ahead, of his new command, and all that she might come to mean to him. In his solitary walks on the frigate's spray-dashed quarterdeck he had been conscious of his role as a mere passenger, and more than once had had to check himself from interfering in the running of the ship.

Now, beneath the Rock's great shadow, he must push such thoughts out of his mind. He was no longer a frigate captain with all the independence and dash that post entailed. Within minutes he would take command of a ship of the line, one of those which swung so calmly and so confidently above their reflections just two cables distant. He made himself look squarely at the one which lay astern of the flagship. A two-decker, one of the seventy-four-gun ships which made up the backbone of England's far-stretched squadrons. The frigate beneath his feet moved restlessly even within the calm waters of the anchorage, her tapered topmasts spiralling against the washed-out blue sky, her rigging humming as if from impatience at the very necessity of being near her heavier consorts. By comparison the two-decker looked squat and unmoving, her towering masts and yards, her double line of ports, adding to her appearance of ponderous power, around which the busy harbour craft scurried like so many water-beetles.

The other man watched the gig being rowed round to the entry port and saw Bolitho's coxswain standing beside a pile of personal luggage like a thickest dog guarding his master's most prized possessions.

He said, "You've a good man there, sir."

Bolitho followed his glance and smiled. "Allday has been with me since . . ." His mind went back over the years without effort, as if every thought and each memory was always lying in wait like a half-forgotten picture. He said abruptly, "My first coxswain was killed at the Saintes in '82. Allday has been with me ever since." Just a few words of explanation, yet how much more they meant to Bolitho, just as Allday's familiar shape was a constant reminder. Now the Saintes and the frigate Phalarope were eleven years in the past, and England was at war again. Leach watched Bolitho's grave face and wondered. During the uneventful voyage from Spithead he had wanted to confide with him, but something had stopped him. He had brought plenty of other passengers to Gibraltar and usually they made a pleasant diversion in the daily routine. Officers for the garrison, couriers and replacements for men killed by accident or design in a war which was already spreading in every direction. But something in Bolitho's impassive, almost withdrawn manner had deterred him from close contact. He looked at him now with a mixture of interest and envy. Bolitho was a senior captain and about to take a step which with any luck at all would place him on the list for flag rank within a few years, maybe only months.

From what Bolitho had said he guessed him to be in his middle or late thirties. He was tall and surprisingly slim, and when he smiled his face became equally youthful. It was said that Bolitho had been away for several years between the wars in the Great South Sea and had come back half dead with fever. It was probably true, he decided. There were deep lines at the corners of his mouth, and beneath the even tan there was a certain fineness to the skin and cheekbones which betrayed such an illness. But the hair which was pulled back to the nape of his neck was black, without even a touch of grey, and the one lock which curled down above his right eye added to his appearance of controlled recklessness. A lieutenant touched his hat, "Boat's ready, sir."

Bolitho held out his hand. "Well, goodbye for the present, Leach. No doubt we will meet again directly."

The frigate's captain smiled for the first time. "I hope so, sir." He snapped his fingers with sudden irritation. "I almost forgot! There is a midshipman aboard who is also appointed to your ship. Will he go across with you?"

He spoke carelessly, as if he were discussing a piece of unwanted baggage, and Bolitho grinned in spite of his inner anxiety. "We were all midshipmen once, Leach." He nodded. "He can come with me."

Bolitho climbed down the ladder to the entry port where the bosun's mates and marines were assembled to see him over the side. His boxes had already vanished, and Allday was waiting by the bulwark, his eyes watching Bolitho as he knuckled his forehead and reported, "All stowed, Captain."

Bolitho nodded. There was something very reassuring about Allday. He was no longer the lithe topman he had once been. He had filled out now, so that in his blue jacket and wide duck trousers he looked muscular and unbreakable, like a rock. But his eyes were still the same. Half thoughtful, half amused. Yes, it was good to have him here today. Then Bolitho saw the midshipman. He got a quick impression of a pale, delicate face and a thin, gangling body which did not seem able to hold still. It was odd that he had not seen him before within the close world of the frigate, he thought.

As if reading his mind Leach said shortly, "He's been seasick for most of the voyage."

Bolitho asked kindly, "What is your name, boy?"

The midshipman began, "S-S-Seton, sir." Then he lapsed into blushing silence.

Leach said unfeelingly, "He stutters, too. I suppose we must take all kinds in times like these."

Bolitho hid a smile. "Quite so." He waited a moment and then added, "Well, Mr. Seton, you go down into the boat first, if you please." He saw the boy's mind wrestling with this early complication in his new career and then said, "Carry on, Allday."

He hardly heard the twitter of pipes or the harsh bark of commands, and only when the gig had moved clear of the frigate's hull and the oars sent her skimming across the unbroken water did he permit himself another glance at his new ship.

Allday followed his stare, and said quietly, "Well there she is, Captain. The old Hyperion."

As the little gig pulled steadily over the blue water Bolitho concentrated his full attention on the anchored Hyperion. Allday had perhaps made his comment without thought, yet his words seemed to jar another chord in Bolitho's mind as if to rule out this further meeting as mere coincidence.

Hyperion was an old ship, for it was twenty-one years since her keel had first tasted salt water, and Bolitho's rational mind told him that it was inevitable he should see her from time to time as his service carried him from one part of the world to the next. Yet whenever his mind and body had been tried to the limit it now seemed as if this old ship of the line had somehow been close by. At the bloody battles of the Chesapeake, and again at the Saintes, when his own beloved frigate had almost been pounded into submission, he had seen her blunt bows thrusting through the thickest of the smoke, her sides flashing with gunfire and sails pockmarked with holes as she fought to hold her place in the line. He narrowed his grey eyes as the sunlight lanced up from the water and threw a pattern of dancing reflections across the ship's tall side. He knew that she had been in steady commission now for over three years and had returned home from the West Indies with high hopes for a quick pay-off and well-earned rest both for herself and her company. But while Hyperion had sailed serenely on her peacetime affairs in the Caribbean sunlight and Bolitho had fought wretchedly against a consuming fever in his house at Falmouth, the clouds of war had gathered once more across Europe. The bloody revolution which had seized France from coast to coast had at first been viewed with nervous excitement from across the English Channel, a human reaction of people who watch an old enemy weakened from within without cost to themselves, but as the fury spread and the stories filtered back to England of a new, even more powerful nation emerging from the din of execution squads and mob carnage, those who had known danger and fear in the past accepted the inevitability of yet another war.

Followed by an anxious and protesting Allday, Bolitho had left his bed and had made his way to London. He had always detested the false gaiety of the town, with its sprawling, dirty streets and the contrasting splendour of its great houses, but he had made up his mind that if necessary he would bend his knee and plead for a new ship.

After weeks of fretting and fruitless interviews he had been given the task of recruiting unwilling inhabitants of the Medway towns to fill the ships which were at last being called into commission.

To the senior powers of the Admiralty whose immediate duty it was to expand and equip a depleted fleet Bolitho was a clever choice for the work of recruitment. His exploits as a young frigate captain were still well remembered, and when war came his was the kind of leadership which might win men from the land for the uncertainties and hardships of a life at sea. Unfortunately Bolitho did not view his appointment with the same enthusiasm. It was somehow characteristic of his make-up that he saw it as a lack of confidence and trust by his superiors whom he suspected of thinking the worst about his recent illness. A sick captain could be a danger. Not just to himself and his ship, but to the vital chain of command, which once weakened could bring disaster and defeat.

The following January England had reeled from the news that the King of France had been beheaded by his own people, and before their minds could adjust to the shock the new French National Convention declared war. It was as if the fury of the whole French nation had shaken the country from the course of reason. Even Spain and Holland, old allies from the past, had received the same declaration, and now, like England, stood awaiting the first real onslaught.

And so the old Hyperion had sailed again with hardly a pause in harbour. To Brest and the inevitable lot of the Channel Squadron to blockade and watch over the French ships sheltering beneath the guns of the shore batteries.

Bolitho had continued with his task, his despair at not being given an immediate command only helping to play fresh havoc with his health. Then as winter gave way to spring he had received his orders to proceed to Spithead and take passage for Gibraltar. As he sat in the stern of the gig he could feel the heavy envelope in his breast pocket, the authority to control and command this ship which now towered above him and reduced all else to insignificance.

Already he could hear the twitter of pipes, the stampede of bare feet and the clatter of muskets as she prepared to receive him. He wondered briefly how long they had awaited his appearance, whether or not his arrival would be greeted with pleasure or misgivings.

It was one thing to take command from another captain who was leaving for promotion or retirement, quite another to step into a dead man's shoes. The gig rounded the high bows and Bolitho stared up at the bright overhanging figurehead. Like the rest of the paintwork the figurehead's gilt looked fresh and clean which was one small sign of a well-run ship. Hyperion the Sun God carried an out-thrust trident and was crowned with the rising sun itself. Only a pair of staring blue eyes broke the sheen of gold, and Bolitho found time to wonder how many of the King's enemies had seen that gilt face through the smoke and had died minutes later. He looked round as he heard something like a gasp and saw the thin midshipman staring up at the towering masts and furled sails. His face seemed full of dread, and the hand which gripped the boat's gunwale was stiff like a claw. Bolitho asked quietly, "How old are you, Mr. Seton?" The boy tore his eyes from the ship and muttered, "S-Sixteen, sir." Bolitho nodded gravely. "Well, I was about your age when I joined a ship very like this one. That was the year Hyperion was built." He gave a wry smile. "And as you see, Mr. Seton, we are both still here!"

He saw the emotions chasing each other across the midshipman's pale face and was glad he had omitted to add that the occasion he had described had been his second ship. At that time, and from the age of twelve, he had been constantly at sea. He wondered why Seton's father had left it so late before sending him into the Navy.

He straightened his back as the boat shot forward towards the entry port and a voice rang out, "Boat ahoy?"

Allday cupped his hands and yelled, "Hyperion!"

If doubt there had been, there was none now. Every man aboard would know that the straight-backed figure in the gold-laced hat was his new master, the man who, next to God, held complete sway over every life in his ship. One who could flog or hang, just as he could equally reward and recognise the faults or efforts of everybody under his hand.

As the oars were tossed and the bowman hooked on to the main chains it took all of Bolitho's self-...

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