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It was almost noon, and the sun which blazed across Sydney harbour was pitiless in its intensity. The sky above the capital of the infant colony should have been bright blue, but it was blurred as if seen through a crudely made glass, and the air around the waterfront buildings and anchorage alike felt gritty and humid.
Isolated and apart from the varied collection of local shipping and heavier merchantmen, a man-of-war stood above her reflection as if she had been there forever, as if she would never move again. Her ensign flapped only occasionally above her high poop, and the commodore's broad pendant which flew from her mainmast truck was only a little more enthusiastic.
But despite the heat and discomfort her decks were alive with watching figures, as they had been for some while, since another British man-of-war had been reported entering the anchorage. The commodore leaned his palms on the sill of his cabin windows and withdrew them hurriedly. The dried wood felt like a heated cannon. But he watched nevertheless, conscious of the unusual silence throughout his command as the newcomer crawled closer and closer across the glittering water, her masts and yards and then her curved beakhead taking shape and clarity above the haze.
The commodore's flagship was the old Hebrus, a small two-decker of sixty-four guns which had been ready for disposal after nearly thirty years of service. Then she and her commodore had been given just one more commission. Now, on this October day in 1789, anchored as senior British naval vessel in Sydney harbour, she was still expected to act if need be with her old efficiency and relish, although many of her officers secretly believed she would be hard put to reach England if her recall was ever offered.
The other ship was a frigate, common enough in times of war and at any other place where their agility and speed might be required at short notice. But out here, thousands of miles from home and familiar faces and customs, a King's ship was rare, and all the more welcome. Her presence accounted for the Hebrus's silence. Every man watching her painstaking entrance in the merest breath of wind would be seeing her differently. A town in England perhaps. A voice. Children he could barely remember.
The commodore grunted and straightened his back, the effort bringing a prickle of sweat across his spine. It was absurd. The new arrival was the thirty-six-gun frigate Tempest, and she had never been to England at all.
He waited as his servant padded around him with dress coat and sword, the trappings of officialdom and ceremony, remembering what he had heard about Tempest. It was strange how circumstances could affect a ship's purpose as well as the lives of the many who might serve her. Six years earlier when war with the American colonies and the Franco-Spanish alliance had come to a close, ships which had been worth their weight in gold in battle were, like most of their companies, no longer wanted. A country soon forgot those who had fought and died for it, so a ship's survival seemed of even less importance. But peace between the great powers had never been very secure, at least to those who had been involved in the price of each bloody victory.
And now there was renewed tension with Spain which could just as easily fan into something worse. It was over rival claims to various territories which each hoped to exploit for trading and colonial purposes. Once again the Admiralty had been directed to search around for more frigates, the life-line of every fleet.
The Tempest had been built in the Honourable East India Company's yard at Bombay just four years back. As with most of John Company's ships, she was constructed of the finest Malabar teak and to the best available design. Unlike the Navy, the Company's ships were always built with long usage in mind, and with some regard for those who had to work them. The Admiralty's agents in Bombay had purchased her for the King's service without her ever sailing under a Company flag. She had cost them eighteen thousand pounds. The Admiralty must have been desperate to pay such a princely sum, the commodore thought privately, or else, as was equally likely, a little extra gold had changed hands in other directions. He gestured for his silent servant to offer him his telescope. He waited for the Hebrus to swing very slightly to her cable and then trained the glass on the slow-moving ship. Like most sea officers he was always impressed by the sight of a frigate. This one was heavier than he was used to, but still retained the graceful proportions, the appearance of latent speed and manoeuvrability which made them every junior officer's dream.
Despite the damned haze he could see a cluster of figures around her forecastle, one anchor catted and ready to let go as she glided purposefully above her twin on the blue water, her stem barely raising a ripple. Under topsails and jib only, her canvas filling and then flapping emptily while she changed tack to take advantage of the poor breeze, he could almost feel the excitement across the water. The sight of a port, any port, always dulled the memory of hardship and sometimes brutal conditions which had got them this far.
The commodore had been expecting the Tempest two weeks or more earlier than this. She had come from Madras, and despatches he had already received from a courier brig had left him in no doubt Tempest would arrive on time.
But he was not irritated as he might have been with other ships. Tempest was under the command of one Captain Richard Bolitho. Not a friend exactly, but a fellow Cornishman, and that, out here in this misery of convicts and foul conditions, fever and corruption, was worth almost as much.
He levelled the glass again. He could now make out the frigate's figurehead, a wild-eyed girl with streaming, hair, her breasts out-thrust as she held a horn fashioned like a great shell to her lips. Her hair and torso were painted in bright gilt. Only her eyes were blue and intense while they stared far ahead as if to follow the makings of her Tempest. The gilt on her and the gingerbread around the part of the poop yet visible must have cost Bolitho a small fortune, he decided. But in these waters there was little else to spend your money on. He winced as he heard his marines stamping along to the entry port. Even their boots seemed loud and heavy enough to shake the poor old Hebrus apart.
A lieutenant peered respectfully through the screen door.
The commodore nodded curtly, not wishing his subordinate to see that he was so interested in the other ship.
"Yes, yes, I know. I'll come up."
Even as he reached for his hat the first bang of the salute echoed across the harbour, making the dozing birds lift from the water, flapping and squawking to reprimand the newcomer for disturbing them.
On the quarterdeck, and despite the spread of an awning, it was like a kiln.
The flag captain touched his hat and studied his superior's mood.
"Tempest, thirty-six, sir. Captain Richard Bolitho."
Gun for gun the salute continued, the dark smoke pressed down on the water as if by something solid.
The commodore thrust his hands behind him.
"Make a signal as soon as she is anchored. Captain repair on board."
The captain hid a smile. The mood was good. He had known times when he had made a dozen signals right in the middle of another ship's last-minute manoeuvring. As if he had enjoyed the apparent confusion caused. There must be something special about this one, he thought.
With her topsails shivering to the regular crash of her eleven-gun salute to the commodore, His Britannic Majesty's frigate Tempest continued slowly across the harbour. The glare on the surface was so fierce that it was painful to look much beyond the rigging or gangways.
Richard Bolitho stood aft at the quarterdeck rail, his hands locked loosely behind his back, trying to appear relaxed despite all the usual tensions of entering an unfamiliar anchorage.
How still it was. He glanced along his ship, wondering how she would appear to the commodore. He had taken command of Tempest in Bombay when she had been commissioned for the Navy, just two years ago.
The thought of the actual date made him smile, changing his grave expression to one of youthfulness. For it had been his birthday, as it was today. On this, the 7th of October, 1789, after making one more in a countless line of forgotten landfalls, Richard Bolitho, of Falmouth in the County of Cornwall was thirty-three years old.
He glanced quickly to the other side of the deck where Thomas Herrick, the first lieutenant, and his best friend, was peering beneath the shade of one hand while he studied the set of the braced yards and the shortened shapes of the bare-backed topmen. He wondered if Herrick had remembered. Bolitho hoped not. In these waters, with week following week of disagreeable climate and persistent calms, you were all too conscious of the passing of time.
"'Bout five minutes now, sir."
"Very well, Mr Lakey."
Bolitho did not have to look round. In the two years of his command in Tempest he knew the voice and temperament of all those who had served with him for most of the period. Tobias Lakey was the lean, taciturn sailing master. Born and raised in the spartan reality of the Scilly Isles off the tip of Bolitho's own Cornwall, he had gone to sea at the age of eight. He was about forty now. In all those years, in every sort of vessel from fishing boat to a ship of the line, there was little of the sea's ways lie had still to learn.
Bolitho glanced slowly along the deck, trying to recall all the other faces which had vanished in the two years. Death and injury, disease and desertion, the faces had come and gone like the tides.
Now Tempest's company was much like any other in a vessel which had never touched a British port, and as mixed as the waterfronts she had seen in her voyages. Some were men who really wished to make the Navy their career. Usually they had signed on other ships in England and had transferred to any available when their own had paid off. They better than most would know that conditions in England, six years after the war, were in many circumstances far worse than life aboard a man-of-war. Here at least they had security of sorts. With a fair commander and a large portion of luck they could make their way. In their own country, for which many of them had fought long and hard, there was little work, and the seaports were too often full of the war's cripples and those rejected by the sea.
But the remainder of Tempest's people were a real melting-pot. French and Danes, several Negroes, an American, and many more besides.
As he looked at the men at the braces and halliards, the boat handlers waiting to lower his gig outboard, the swaying line of sweating marines on the poop, he tried to tell himself he should be content. He knew that if he were in England he would be fretting and worrying about getting back to sea. Trying to obtain a new ship, any ship. That was how it had been after the war. Then he had already held two commands, a sloop and his beloved frigate Phalarope.
When he had been given the Undine, another fifth-rate, and despatched to Madras on the other side of the world, he had felt only gratitude that he had been spared the fate of the many who daily thronged the Admiralty corridors or waited in the coffee houses, hoping and praying for just such a chance as his.
That had been five years in the past. And apart from a short visit to England he had been away from home waters ever since. When he had taken command of Tempest he had expected to be recalled to England for new orders. To be sent to the West Indies perhaps, to the Channel Fleet, or to the territory which was in dispute with Spain.
He looked at Herrick again and wondered. Herrick said nothing of his own views now, although he had once made them plain enough. Apart from his coxswain, John Allday, Bolitho knew of no other who risked his anger by such plain speaking.
It had all come back to him when Tempest had anchored at Madras two months ago. Even as his boat's crew had made their desperate efforts to pull him through the angry surf without getting their captain soaked to the skin he had remembered his first visit. When he had carried Viola Raymond, wife of the British Government's adviser to the East India Company, as passenger. Herrick had spoken out then to warn him of the real dangers, of the risk to his name and advancement in the one life he loved.
Automatically he touched the shape of the watch in his breeches pocket. The watch she had given him to replace one broken in battle. Where was she now?
During his brief return to England he had gone to London. He had told himself he would not really try to see her again. That he would just pass her house. See where she lived. At the same time he had known it was a lie. But he could as easily have stayed content with her memory. The house, apart from the servants, was empty. James Raymond and his wife were away on the government's business. Raymond's steward had been offhand to a point of rudeness. Aboard a King's ship a captain was second only to God, and many said that was merely due to seniority. In the streets and terraces of St James's he ranked not at all.
He heard Herrick call, "Stand by to let go, Mr Jury!"
Jury, the barrel-chested boatswain, needed no advice about watching the anchor party, so Herrick must have sensed Bolitho's mood and was trying to jerk him from it.
Bolitho smiled wearily. He had known Herrick since taking command of Phalarope, and they had rarely been apart since. He had not changed much. Stockier perhaps, but the same round, open face with those bright blue eyes which had shared so much with him. If, as Bolitho now suspected, his brief affair with Viola Raymond had made its mark in high places, then Herrick was being punished too, and without cause. The thought angered and saddened him. Maybe the commodore would shed some light on things. But this time he would not hope. He did not dare.
He thought of his despatches, of the extra news he would give Commodore James Sayer. He remembered Sayer quite well, and had met him in Cornwall once or twice. They had served in the same squadron on the American station before that. Both lieutenants.
With the echoes of the final shot hanging in the air Tempest glided the last half cable to her prescribed anchorage.
Bolitho said curtly, "When you are prepared, Mr Herrick."
Herrick raised his speaking trumpet, his reply equally formal.
"Aye, aye, sir." Then he shouted, "Man the lee braces there! Hands wear ship!"
The motionless seamen sprang into life.
Bolitho saw Thomas Gwyther, the surgeon, hovering by the larboard gangway, trying to avoid the hurrying seamen. How unlike the last surgeon Bolitho had had. He had been a violent, towering drunkard of a man. One who had let his passion for drink and the memories he had tried to contain with it destroy him entirely. Gwyther was a stooped, dried-up little man with wispy grey hair, whose frail looks were at odds with his apparent toughne...
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