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It is 1793. Europe is ablaze with war. The British prime minister is under pressure to intimidate the French, and dispatches a Navy squadron to appear off the French coast. To man the ships, ordinary citizens must be press-ganged.
Thomas Paine Kydd, a young wig-maker from Guildford, is seized and taken across country to be part of the crew of the ninety-eight-gun line-of-battle ship Duke William. The ship sails immediately and Kydd has to learn the harsh realities of shipboard life fast. Despite all he goes through, amid the dangers of tempest and battle, he comes to admire the skills and courage of his fellow seamen, taking up the challenge himself to become a true sailor and defender of Britain at war.
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Julian Stockwin is the internationally bestselling author of Kydd, Artemis, Seaflower, and Mutiny, the first four novels in the Kydd adventure series. Having joined the Royal Navy at age fifteen, he retired from the Royal Naval Reserve as a lieutenant commander and was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE). He and his wife live in Devon, England. Visit the author's website at www.julianstockwin.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"The Honorable the Member for Molton." The Speaker of the Commons, in his full-bottomed wig, gave the floor to Edmund Burke in the crowded chamber.
Rubbing his long nose, the orator stood and glanced across to the opposite benches at the slumped figure of the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, who seemed resigned to events. It would not do, however, to underestimate Pitt, even if, as a man of peace, he seemed unsure of his direction in this new war with the French.
Burke drew himself up and spoke effortlessly above the disorderly hum. "Is this House aware that at this very moment, in a time of crisis without parallel in the history of these islands, His Majesty's government sees fit to let its chief means of defense, the Navy, its sure shield" -- he paused and looked impressively about him -- "rot at anchor in its ports, while the enemy is at liberty to issue forth on his awful missions of destruction?" He was aware that behind him, ready for any excuse to interject, was the fat, mustard-waistcoated figure of Charles Fox. Discredited for his earlier support of the French Revolution, he was nevertheless leader of His Majesty's loyal opposition -- and a liability.
"No doubt the Honorable Gentleman is sensible of the fact that our most valuable possessions in the Caribbean lie trembling in daily expectation of a descent by the enemy? That the City clamors for protection for its commerce? That we, the loyal Whigs" -- he ignored the raucous splutter behind him that could only have issued from the embittered Fox -- "demand as conditional to our continued support to this Ministry that measures be taken to protect our commercial interests. And strong measures, which are swift, effective and decisive!"
Pitt slouched farther down in his seat. What did they know of the real situation? Admiral Howe with the Channel Fleet was in port, true, but he commanded the only strategic fleet Britain possessed at this time, and would answer to the nation for its preservation until it was fit enough to grapple with the enemy. Howe would not jeopardize its safety. Still watching Burke, he leaned over to the man on his left and whispered, "Desire the Admiralty to make a showing off the French coast -- just two or three ships of force will suffice." That would be enough to mollify Burke, who had only spoken to point up his own grand gesture of conciliation. Howe could spare two or three of the more elderly vessels. "Allow that it is a matter of some urgency," Pitt added wearily.
From the quarterdeck of the ship-of-the-line Duke William, nothing could be seen of the passengers in the ugly little hoy thrashing its way through the gray-green seas toward them. It was making heavy weather of it, bluff bows slamming into the short, steep waves kicked up by the stiff northerly. Drenching sheets of spray were flung skywards before whipping aft over the small craft.
Duke William's officer of the watch lowered his telescope with a grunt of exasperation. It was important to know quickly the results of their swift press-gang raid inland. Duke William had to be in a position to catch the evening tide to enable them to reach Admiral Howe's fleet at Spithead before it sailed.
With a new captain and a hard horse first lieutenant, the old ship had a poor reputation and would never attract volunteers. Furthermore, this was a full five days after the declaration of war against revolutionary France, and the Impress Service and individual press-gangs had between them cleared the Thames of seamen.
From his own pocket, Captain Caldwell had paid the hire of a pair of coaches to take a press-gang in a lightning swoop down the Portsmouth road, hoping to pounce on seamen who had taken refuge in the country or, failing that, seize some sturdy rural lads. An illegal act, but they could be spirited away well before magistrate or sheriff could intervene, and once at sea they were beyond reach.
The hoy drove on, its single-reefed mainsail board taut, its angle to the tide-driven waves resulting in an awkward screwing motion. Sprawled miserably on the bottom boards under a tarpaulin were some thirty wretched, seasick men and boys, the press-gang harvest.
Taking an appreciative pull from a bottle, the petty officer in charge returned it to his shipmate and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. "Get it inside yer, Davey, while yer've still got the chance, mate."
The two men crouched in the lee of the weather gunwale, knowing they were out of sight from the ship. It would be their last chance before arriving aboard out in the great Fleet anchorage of the Nore.
Spray rattled again on the sail, and a thin, cold rain drifted across them. As the petty officer hunkered down farther, his black hat wet and gleaming, his shoe caught a lump in the tarpaulin, bringing a muffled cry. He lifted the edge, and a dark-haired young man of about twenty stared up at him with dull brown eyes. The petty officer grinned and dropped the tarpaulin.
The young man tried to ease his position, but it was hopeless: confined as he was by other wet bodies, seasickness and the continual violent motion of the hoy, he lacked strength to move. Nearby, a pale flaccid face lifted. The empty eyes looked into his and as he watched, a weak spasm produced from slack lips a green ooze that tracked across the sunken cheeks. The sight brought on the inevitable, but there was no more of his meager breakfast to bring up. Subsiding weakly after a series of dry heaves, Thomas Paine Kydd laid his head once more on the wet, hard boards.
Only a few nights earlier, he had been enjoying warmth and companionship in the Horse and Groom in Merrow village, a public house that dated back to the first King Charles; its age and solidity spoke of the bucolic calm of that part of England. Three miles up the road was Guildford, a popular staging halt on the way from London to the trading ports of the south and west. There, in the last days of the peace, he had seen from his wig shop in High Street grim faces of naval officers staring from coach windows as they clattered over the cobblestones on their way to the Angel posting house.
He had heard in the shop that this war was going to be quite different from the stately clashes of empires earlier in the century. It was not going to be a traditional war against France. Instead, it would be a fight to the death against the howling mob that had overwhelmed all the forces of the state and had now put to death their own king. In the Horse and Groom there had been bold talk that night, and this time not only from Stallard and his crew, as usual ensconced in secret conclave in the snug. It was widely held that the midnight rides of "Captain Swing" and a rash of rick-burnings were the work of Stallard and his men, and Kydd tried to avoid their company.
The loss of the American colonies and the fall of Lord North, spectacular victories in India and the rise of the younger Pitt had not disturbed this quiet corner of England, so it had been all the more shocking when a wider world had come smashing in on the night the press-gang had made its move. Tipped off by a sheriff's man who wanted to rid himself of undesirables, they had sprung their trap with practiced ease.
One minute it was noise and laughter, the next an appalled silence in the smoke-filled taproom at the sight of sailors appearing at every exit. They were in a costume like those to be seen in the theater, complete with pigtails, black tarred hat and short blue jacket. And each had a cudgel in one hand, which he tapped slowly in the opposite palm.
Patrons were allowed to leave, but at each door they were separated into those who would go home to relate their escape to wide-eyed loved ones, and those who would begin a long journey to their fate on the high seas. Kydd had struggled but, under the weight of superior numbers, was soon overpowered.
The trip east to the Isle of Sheppey had taken two days. They had avoided towns, and the men had been handcuffed to a tarpaulin-covered wagon like common criminals. Kydd had felt bitter and hopeless by turns, not able to find comfort in cursing as Stallard seemed to do, or in the fatalism of the two merchant seamen also caught up in the press.
They were kept for two more days in the dank holding cells in Sheerness's Blue Town, a bleak garrison town, at the tip of the desolate island at the mouth of the Thames. It seemed to Kydd that he had arrived at the end of the earth. He was almost relieved when it was time to board the hoy. Then he saw, for the first time, the forest of masts set in an iron-gray winter sea, and knew he would need all the courage and strength he could muster for whatever lay ahead.
Now he tried to ignore the steady trickle of icy rainwater, on its way to the bilge, that coursed down his neck and back.
Suddenly the tarpaulin was flung aside, and Kydd took in the brightness of the pearly winter sky above, the reluctant stirring of damp men and, dominating all, the colossal form of a great ship. It seemed all gunports and lines of yellow and black timber, unknown fitments and black ropes. It towered up to the deck-line, and then above to an impossibly complex structure of masts and yards, black and ominous against the sky.
His eyes sought meaning in the rush of detail. The massive sides of the ship were near enough to touch. At such proximity the pockmarks of age and battle were all too clear, and at the point where the fat side of the ship met the muddy gray waves of the Thames estuary, dark-green weed betrayed the urgency with which the ship had been summoned from her foreign station. In the dark beyond the open gunports Kydd could discern unknown movement. From a small opening near the waterline discolored water dribbled on and on into the sea.
"Let's be havin' yer, then, me lads!" the petty officer said, and released them with a brisk clinking of metal. Kydd rubbed his wrists.
High above, a figure in a gold-laced coat and black cocked hat appeared at the deck edge. "What the devil -- My God, get those men inboard at once, or I'll have the hide off someone's back, I swear!"
The sailor moved quickly. "That prick Garrett," he muttered. "Watch, you bleedin' lubbers -- like this!"
He moved easily along the gunwale of the hoy to where a series of small steps marched vertically up the tumble home of the ship's side. On each side were handropes, shiny with use. Stepping lightly across at the highest point of the hoy's wallow, in one movement he transferred his weight to step and handrope simultaneously and swarmed up the ship's side.
The remaining sailor blustered at them from behind, and the first moved forward. He grabbed the ropes but his feet slipped on the rain-slick wood and he fell into the sea, still dangling from the rope. He squealed in fright until the sailor hoisted him up by the scruff of his neck. The others held back in fear. "Fer Chrissake, get up there!" the sailor urged.
No one moved. The hoy rose and fell, the slap of waves between the two vessels loud and forbidding.
Something stirred in Kydd. He pushed the others aside, snatched a look upward and acted as he had seen the seaman do. He jumped across the chasm between the two vessels, his feet scrabbled on the narrow step and he paused to gather his strength. Then he began to climb, not daring to look down. A sudden shaking of the handrope showed that his example had been followed.
Kydd emerged over the thick bulwarks onto the upper deck. It was a scene of unutterable complexity, the deck sweeping far forward, massive cannon in rows along it, and above him a black web of lines connecting masts and spars higher and thicker than any tree imaginable. The rock-like stillness of the ship was in noticeable contrast to the lively movement of the hoy.
The high, irritable voice shrilled, "Over there, you fool!" The officer was standing near the ship's wheel, legs akimbo. "There, you damn idiot!" he snarled, and stabbed his telescope toward the mainmast.
Kydd shambled weakly toward it, tripping on a ringbolt in the deck.
"Good God!" the officer exclaimed. "So this is what we're going to meet the French with!" He turned to the plainly dressed older man standing with him. "Heaven help us!"
The man's expression did not change but he murmured, "Yes, Mr. Garrett, heaven indeed help us."
The young farmhand had finally stopped howling in terror at the black, malodorous confines of the lower hold and was now looking up through the hatch grating at the marine sentry and sobbing quietly. The rest lay draped over the bulk stores, mainly huge casks, that extended out into the noisome gloom.
The air was so thick it was difficult to breathe. Although Duke William barely noticed the waves, creaks and cracks randomly punctuated the darkness, terrifying for those who could not know what they meant. The only relief from the all-conquering darkness was the dim wash of tawny light that patterned down through the gratings from the few lanthorns on the deck above.
Lying back on a cask top, Kydd strained his eyes at the shadows of the hold. Around him he could hear moans and coughs, weeping and obscenities. Men moved restlessly. At the very edge of his perception, he became aware of movement, out of sequence with the ponderous creaking from the working timbers. Then he heard the scrabble of tiny paws as pinprick flashes of red appeared and disappeared. He shuddered and fixed his gaze resolutely on the lanthorn.
A broken mumbling started on one side. A voice Kydd recognized as Stallard's snarled back and the mumbling stopped. The man next to Kydd stank, a musty uncared-for rankness. Kydd inched over the top of the big cask to get away -- and slid off with a cry. He fell into what seemed to be a shingle beach. He stood up in confusion and moved forward. Each step into the shingle ballast brought a renewed roiling of an acrid stench.
A shape appeared over the edge of an adjacent cask. "Give us yer hand, mate," it said. Kydd hastily scrunched over and did so. The human contact was gratifying and he found himself hoisted surprisingly easily onto the top of the cask. "Don't want ter go wandering around too much, cully. Yer can find dead 'uns an' all down there!"
It was difficult to make out who was talking; Kydd kept silent.
The man eyed him. "Truscott. Didn't move meself fast enough when they came." He grunted. "Shoulda known better. A pox on the bastards, anyway."
Kydd felt a surge of anger at those who had torn him away from his rightful place in life to this world of squalor and misery. "What happens now?" he asked.
"Why, that's easy enough. We go before the First Luff, who'll rate you landman 'n' me able seaman -- mebbe quartermaster's mate if I'm lucky. And then we gets to be part of the crew of this 'ere vessel."
"So how long'll this be -- I mean, when can I go back home?"
The man chuckled harshly. "Forget home, lad. You're crew of the Royal Billy all the time she's in commission -- you gets to leave her only if she goes to Davy Jones's locker by bein' wrecked ashore o...
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Book Description Scribner, 2001. Hard Cover. Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. First Edition. First Printing. Jacket protected in mylar. Seller Inventory # 35169
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