Victory, p.14

Victory, page 14



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  He found plain clothes and announced to Howlett that he was going ashore on a social occasion for the evening. There was a risk that some in his boat party might desert but it would have to be taken.

  They dropped him by the Citadel, the other side of Plymouth Hoe to Dock but conveniently near Old Town.

  He headed up the hill towards the louring ramparts of the Citadel until he was out of sight, then dropped sharply to the waterfront to enter the maze of old Tudor buildings that marked Plymouth proper. He knew Toby Stirk would never be so foolish as to risk roystering in a Dock tavern but would nevertheless go to ground somewhere close, like the noisome stews of Cockside resorted to by the merchant sailors whose ships crowded Sutton Pool and the Cattedown.

  Irony tugged at him: it was Stirk who had come for him when he had been so desolated after the death of his fiancée Rosalynd that he had wandered there to drown himself in drink among sailoring humanity.

  He had deliberately sent Gilbey on a fool’s errand to show he was taking the desertions seriously, and now he must work fast to find his men before it was too late. Cockside was a square-shaped huddle of buildings. In the dark of the evening it was thronged with waterfront folk and Kydd slipped among them along the passages linking the rickety, cramped dwellings and taphouses.

  At each tavern he wandered innocently in, looking about as if to find a friend, then apologetically withdrew. It was a very long shot: an old fox like Stirk could disappear into the countryside and wait for L’Aurore to sail before emerging, even if this part of Plymouth was never the haunt of King’s men.

  But he knew Doud, too. It would be in keeping with his open-hearted character to feel the need to sink a pint or two before moving on and he was quite inseparable from his old mess-mate Pinto. There was a chance.

  One by one he played his act in every alehouse and grog parlour, but without result. Suddenly Kydd stopped and cocked his ear.

  He had taken a short cut in front of a dilapidated boat-builder’s slip. In its shed there was a chink of light and he heard voices, one of which he could swear was Stirk’s deep, masculine rasp.

  As he tiptoed towards the building, a grog-roughened voice started up:

  ‘’Tis of a flash frigate, L’Aurore was her name,

  All in the West Indies she bore a great name;

  For cru-el bad using of every degree,

  Like slaves in the galley we ploughed the salt sea.

  So now, brother shipmates, where’er ye may be

  From all fancy frigates I’d have ye steer free . . .’

  Kydd reached the big double door. It was barred with a stout timber athwart it. He lifted it; it gave and he lifted further. Suddenly the door burst outward to reveal the deserters around a carpenter’s bench with a single candle and bottles.

  The men stumbled to their feet. ‘Wha’—? Be buggered – it’s Mr Kydd!’

  In a rush for the door Kydd was knocked to one side by Stirk and Pinto but managed to hang on to Doud, who made a wild swing that sent him staggering. Enraged, he returned a blow to the stomach that knocked Doud to his knees, retching.

  Out of the corner of his eye Kydd saw that Pinto had drawn a knife and was advancing on him with a deadly look.

  ‘Stop! Let me speak! There’s no one else, I swear it – I’m alone!’ he said urgently.

  Stirk now loomed behind Pinto, his fists loose.

  ‘Hear me out!’ Kydd pleaded, his head throbbing.

  There was a tense silence.

  ‘Drop it, Pinto,’ Stirk finally growled. ‘Let’s hear what he’s got t’ say f’r himself.’

  Kydd swallowed. ‘Men – that’s t’ say, Toby an’ Ned – I wouldn’t be here ’less I had good reason, cared what happened t’ ye.’

  There was no response.

  ‘I’ll give ye th’ true lay – an’ it’s not pretty. See, we—’

  ‘Ye turned over the Alcestes. After three year sweatin’ in the Caribbee. You!’ Stirk grated.

  So that was what it was all about, the moral affront to a sailor’s rights, not a careless disinclination to serve in an unhappy ship. And it seemed it was common knowledge that Kydd’s active intervention had brought it about.

  He thought quickly. ‘Aye, it was me.’ He tried to ignore the naked contempt on their faces. ‘So I’m going t’ square wi’ ye all. I’m t’ tell just what it was made me do it, and God help me if ever any hear I’ve split on ’em in the Admiralty an’ told ye.’

  There was no change in the stony grimaces. ‘Now, I’m trustin’ that ye’ll not blow th’ gaff on this to the common folk as places their trust in the Navy t’ save ’em.’

  The contempt faded to blankness and Kydd continued, ‘We’s been at war more’n ten years since ’ninety-three, but now it’s different. Boney wants t’ invade an’ he means it.’

  ‘An’ he’ll never do it! One reg’lar-built English man-o’-war’s worth two o’ the Mongseers!’ Stirk proclaimed harshly.

  ‘Ha!’ Kydd snarled. ‘That’s where y’r arithmeticals are on a lee shore t’ the truth. I’ll agree – we’re better’n any two Frenchies but what if they’ve got double the ships? We’re level! What if they’ve more still? We go down fightin’ gloriously – but we go down.

  ‘Our Nel has twelve o’-the-line off Toulon. Since th’ Spanish came in against us, Boney’s above a hundred t’ throw at us.’

  Kydd looked from one to another. Then, in low, measured tones, he detailed the colossal odds against them: the three thousand ships of the invasion flotilla itself, the uncountable hordes of Napoleon’s finest encamped above Boulogne, poised to fall on England.

  He went on: the lonely ships somewhere in the oceans of the world, listing on his fingers the out-numbered battle squadrons off the major ports that were all that stood between Bonaparte and their homes and loved ones. He held back nothing of the desperate measures Pitt and the Admiralty were taking to hold together the one thing that would save the kingdom.

  ‘An’ the post of honour, where d’ ye think that is?’ he snapped. ‘Why, it c’n only be where th’ Frenchy admiral is – an’ where Nelson is as well. He’s called f’r us in his sore need, shipmates. Are we going t’ hold back?’

  ‘Y’ turned over the Alcestes,’ mumbled Doud, stubbornly.

  ‘S’ what else c’n I do, y’ simkin?’ Kydd flared. ‘Let a fine frigate swing about her moorings till her crew give me leave t’ sail? So what’ll fadge, Ned? There’s an accounting wi’ Bonaparte very soon now, you tell me t’ my face a better way t’ get L’Aurore to Nelson. Come on, say away, m’ squiddy cock.’

  Doud looked back at the others, shame-faced. Stirk folded his arms and regarded Kydd steadily. ‘Then why d’ye come after us? You’ve a full crew, aught t’ worry of?’

  ‘Y’ needs me to say it, Toby? Then I’ll tell ye – we’re a new frigate an’ we’ll be in every scrape God sends. An’ if I can’t trust m’ old mess-mates . . .’

  The tide was turning, he could feel it. ‘’Sides, once Johnny Crapaud’s come out an’ been beat, we’re free t’ go a-prize-takin’ or similar, I wouldn’t wonder. Of which I know a little . . .’

  He had them. ‘So – if ye sees y’ course clear to return aboard, well, y’ not th’ first sailors to fetch up slewed t’ the gills as couldn’t grope their way back.’

  The next day started with Kydd’s orders for a convoy. Never one to waste a frigate’s Gibraltar voyage, the admiral had thirty-three merchantmen and an army transport in Cawsand Bay waiting for an escort. It meant a rush of work preparing signals, sailing-orders folders and all the apparatus of an ocean convoy but, mercifully, Kydd could hand it all over in the time-honoured way to the most junior lieutenant, Curzon.

  An army officer presented himself with orders for Gibraltar, and the dockyard desired to know where he wished stowed the spare spars allocated for the Mediterranean. The respectful commander of Hasty brig-sloop made himself known, as did the lieutenant-in-command of the dispatch cutter Lapwing, both destined for Gibralta
r and under Kydd’s command as additional escort.

  A fine thing to be a post-captain, he thought happily, as they were seen over the side and he turned to discover what his first lieutenant wanted. ‘Er, we’ve found the deserters, sir,’ he said.

  ‘Deserters? Where was this, then, Mr Howlett?’

  ‘Um, waiting for our boat.’

  ‘Then stragglers it is, sir, not deserters.’ The Navy had a practical view of being adrift on liberty. If a seaman was found within the bounds of the port the stand was taken that, notwithstanding the manner of his absenting, an intention to desert could not be proven.

  His spirits rose. There would now be other voices and other views on the mess-deck; if there was a way of making it up to his old shipmates without compromising his position he would find it.

  It was Kydd’s first commission outside home waters in this war of Napoleon and there was still much to be done to prepare for the open ocean.

  Tysoe was dispatched ashore for cabin stores – he could be trusted to lay in sufficient for an extended deployment, sparing only the wine, which in the Mediterranean would not be hard to find. Preserves and delicacies of all kinds began coming aboard – from lean bacon, pickles, hams, cheeses, mustard and all necessary tracklements to sustain a fine table to anchovies, a barrel of oysters, pepper, dried fruit, molasses, jams, all carefully chosen to add variety and interest yet remain wholesome for months in foreign parts.

  Recalling his experiences as a common sailor in a voyage to the Great South Sea, Kydd made certain that plenty of onions were taken aboard. Large, juicy and pungent, these were a sovereign cure for the monotony of salt beef and pork, and with these and the ‘conveniences’ of herbs and pepper to hand, a cunning mess-cook would take delight in conjuring a spirit-lifting sea pie with all the trimmings.

  By degrees the excitement of the outward-bounder spread about the ship – the new midshipmen and boys a mix of apprehension and joy, old shellbacks ready with hair-raising yarns of exotic ports and cruel seas. It would be different for the Alcestes, of course, Kydd knew with a pang. Torn from the country they had cherished in their hearts for three years, they were heading out to sea once again. It was hard, but it was war. In weeks they would be part of Lord Nelson’s fleet – he was utterly determined that by the time they reached Gibraltar they would be worthy of the honour.

  Last-minute stores were loaded, including newspapers – a large selection of the latest editions in corded bundles, protectively sealed within sailcloth wrapping and stowed carefully. These would be minutely pored over by the Gibraltar garrison and in the wardrooms of Nelson’s squadron, a grateful reminder of a previous existence. Finally, dispatches, the most precious cargo of all.

  At L’Aurore’s masthead the Blue Peter floated free. This was the first time Kydd had flown the flag of readiness to sail in his own right, and with satisfaction he watched as, one by one, the other ships repeated the signal. He left it to the cutter to awaken the laggards to their duty.

  Promptly at the top of the tide the Gibraltar convoy put to sea in a fine north-westerly. Kydd had the cutter and the sloop move out first to secure the assembly point while L’Aurore shepherded the merchantmen out from the rear. As they left the heights of Rame Head abeam, they met the full force of the cold north-westerly, L’Aurore plunging and bucking until sail could be taken off the fine-lined frigate. It made assembling the convoy a trial: merchant ships were unused to the discipline of sailing in formation and had no crew to spare for the backing and filling required to stay in place.

  Gibraltar was a thousand miles to the south, past Ushant at the mouth of the Channel and across the Bay of Biscay, then the length of the Iberian Peninsula. But from Plymouth it was a more-or-less direct line so it could be reached on a single board.

  The gaggle of shipping settled down at last, the sloop leading to windward and the cutter handily at the mid-point and L’Aurore, with her speed, overseeing from the rear. Kydd knew the routine, however: they would advance at the rate of the slowest.

  He kept the deck until it was known which that was, for much hung on the outcome. A slow sailer could grievously hamper the convoy’s progress and be a curse on them all. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be the Mahratta army transport, a fat-bellied ship that was as leewardly as she was slow.

  Calling Lapwing within hail, he ordered her to instruct the vessel to spread all sail conformable to the weather and keep as close by the wind as practicable, irrespective of their course. The westerly was holding but if they were to make it around Cape Finisterre in one board there was no point in taking chances.

  Without being told, the loose convoy trimmed sail to conform and, tightening their formation, settled down for the long haul south. Kydd remained on deck, quietly observing the officer-of-the-watch, Gilbey, work out what combination of reefs and bracing would result in the steady pace needed to match speeds with their flock.

  He seemed competent, and economical in his use of the hands. Kydd’s eyes turned on the men themselves. In the next minute a strange sail could lift into sight and then they might be fighting for their lives. Would they follow him?

  The party by the fore-brace bitts worked efficiently enough at the hanking and coiling, with the easy swing of prime seamen but without so much as a word between them. When they finished they turned their backs and padded silently away.

  Kydd knew the signs only too well. These men had lost heart. And if that was so, then as things now were, he could not depend on them in a fighting situation.

  In the night the wind freshened; by morning the smaller ships were struggling, bucketing along under the streaming blast from out of the west. Kydd ordered sail shortened but this was a typical Atlantic snorter, flat and hard from its thousand-mile fetch, sheeting spume from the wave-crests of the Biscay rollers and making life aboard increasingly uncomfortable.

  What it was like in the army transport with hundreds of men and scores of horses didn’t bear thinking about, and even aboard L’Aurore men were beginning to stagger to the ship’s side, the seas coming in directly on the beam in a massive, jerking roll.

  Yet for Kydd it was satisfying: the frigate lay to the wind with ease, a whole point or two still in hand to windward, her press of canvas steadying the worst of the rolling. He eyed the conditions: if it came to a fight they could probably manage, but on the lee side their gun-ports must remain closed against the surging roll, and only a first-class set of seaman-gunners could cope with the capricious deck motion.

  Another day, however, saw the situation Kydd had feared. The wind had not moderated and, in fact, was backing south-westerly. Shortly decisions would have to be made for at this rate they would not round Cape Finisterre, at worst to be carried on to the lee shore of hostile Spain.

  There was no help for it: they were headed, and well before dark signals were made to prepare to tack. The thirty-seven ships carefully went about to take up on the larboard tack, heading out into the depths of the Atlantic with solid combers crashing against their bows.

  It was slow going, L’Aurore pitching harshly, sending sluicing seas time and again over her fo’c’sle. Kydd took the trouble to look at conditions on the lower deck for himself and, as he had suspected, water was spurting in from everywhere as the bows submerged into the shock of the oncoming waves, the deck itself a-swim with a racing surge before it found its way into the bilge.

  There was little that could be done: no caulking could stand against the pressures. It was the fault of L’Aurore’s fine entry – designed for speed rather than the blunter fore-part of a British ship built for sea-keeping – and he would have to get used to it.

  Early next morning he knew he had to make a decision. How long to leave it before he made his move south once more? Each hour they were making useful ground to the west but at the same time it was taking them by degrees to the north. Too early a move and they would have to repeat their beat to the west but leaving it too long would cost them in so much more delay.

  He com
promised on three more days, dead time in their thrash south but several hundred miles safely further out from the coast, the leaden overcast preventing a sight of the sun and making all positions the product of dead-reckoning.

  Keenly feeling the responsibility of his argosy, its value in cargo, the several thousand souls, he finally gave the orders that had the convoy wheeling about to resume its southward track.

  As they passed the forty-three degrees north latitude of Cape Finisterre, invisible miles to leeward, the wind magically changed. Veering sharply north and moderating in a brisk quartering wind, it urged the convoy onward.

  It was too good to last. Soon after a watery sun appeared, giving their position as some seventy miles to seaward of Cape St Vincent, the winds dropped and their speed fell away to a walking pace. It was intensely annoying – once past, they could shape course directly for Gibraltar on the last leg with an easy wind astern.

  Sail blossomed from every yard but, again, they were constrained by the lumbering transport, which was making poor going in the light airs. At this season and latitude, on the fringe of the south-west trades, calms could occur without warning – and equally within hours a storm could threaten.

  Eventually the legendary cape was passed and course was shaped for Gibraltar. The calm, however, lasted into the night, a blaze of stars near enough to touch doing little for Kydd’s mood. In the morning the breeze dropped even further, a playful zephyr all that was left. At noon the transport hung out a signal but it was unreadable, the fluky breeze not enough to raise the flags to read them.

  As much for something to do, Kydd sent away a boat to investigate. It was back before long and Curzon wasted no time in telling him the news. ‘Captain Jevons sends his compliments and believes you should know that because of your extended leg to seaward he will soon be in distress for water.’

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