Victory, p.15

Victory, page 15

 

Victory
 


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  Kydd bit back his retort: this was a retired post-captain persuaded to take command of the transport and far senior to himself. No doubt he had underestimated the water needs of the cavalry horses and had now found his excuse.

  The nearest watering would be somewhere in Iberia and he would not venture his convoy on such a mission. Gibraltar should be only one or two days’ sail or so away – but in this calm? He had no idea how long horses could go without water but guessed it was not a great deal of time. And after seasickness crossing Biscay, the troops would have every incentive to clean themselves up – using their precious drinking water.

  In exasperation he ordered the convoy to heave to, a long process with the merchantmen in the light airs strung out all over the ocean. Then it was sweaty heaving for his crew to sway up their last three full leaguers from the hold and lower them into the sea. Fresh water meant that they floated and he left them there wallowing for the transport to grapple and haul in.

  ‘Deck hoooo!’ The sudden hail from the fore-top took everyone by surprise. ‘T’ loo’ard – sail an’ galleys.’

  Suddenly apprehensive, Kydd jumped for the shrouds and stared into the band of pearly haze that was the horizon to the east, the Strait of Gibraltar itself. Then he saw a straggle of small craft, many oared, the lofty sweep of the lateen of a Moorish felucca or some such. There could be only one reason for their presence: word had been passed to Tarifa, or another Spanish nest of corsairs, of a convoy becalmed, ripe for the picking.

  Given any kind of workable breeze a frigate would be soon among them to blow them out of the water, but with this – cats-paws prettily darkening the sea in long riffles and disappearing as fast as they came, canvas hanging and slatting aimlessly . . .

  The cutter would have oars and the sloop awkward sweeps but, without the agility of the lighter enemy craft, they would easily be evaded. His ships and their valuable cargo would then be picked off one by one. Kydd might soon be known as the captain of a frigate whose entire convoy had been taken right from under his nose by a ragtag swarm of picaroons.

  ‘Mr Oakley – every man you can get in the tops with buckets, the fire-engine with hoses,’ he ordered urgently. ‘Get those sails wet!’

  There was no time for much else; stunsails had long been set and he was ready to try, with the only move he could make, to put himself between the beetling menace and the convoy.

  It was hopeless. There was simply a contented gurgling as the helm was put over, long minutes of lazy turning while all the time the threat sharpened into focus. On the transport there were movements of red figures where the soldiers were lining the decks with muskets – but they were in no danger: it was the fat merchantmen they were after.

  The cutter and sloop needed no orders – they were already swinging to meet the enemy but they were near helpless in the calm.

  ‘We’re makin’ way, sir,’ Kendall said, with something between surprise and awe. It was true – a small but regular ripple was spreading out from their forefoot. Kydd joined him in looking down the ship’s side and tried to estimate – one, two knots?

  ‘Does she answer the helm true?’ he threw at the conn. The helmsman wound on four spokes of the wheel. The bowsprit obediently began stepping across and the man spun the helm back, meeting the swing. The bow stopped and came back. They had steerage way.

  ‘Damn it – we’ve got a chance!’ Kydd blurted. But first they had to overhaul the entire convoy from their post at the rear. The race was on.

  One by one they slipped past the helpless ships, threading their way around drifting vessels, L’Aurore catching every slight wafting breath of air to urge steadily on. Kydd couldn’t keep the smile from his face – this was her true breeding, the ghosting in light airs that he had noticed before. And now it was going to save them all.

  Around the deck there were grins and laughter – the spell was lifting. This was a ship a sailor could be proud to be in, one that had the promise of witchery, of feats that could be yarned about for years afterwards.

  The Alcestes were starting to change to L’Aurores.

  The enemy were suddenly presented with the dismaying picture of a frigate emerging from the crowd of frightened sail, and in the flat calm unaccountably bearing down on them. They huddled together – a fatal mistake, for L’Aurore took her time, then slewed about to open with a broadside on the concentrated group.

  After the gun-smoke rolling down on their target had cleared it was very apparent they were not about to be troubled any further by the marauders. Making off as fast as they could to avoid the other broadside, they left three wrecks to be dealt with by the cutter, which was gamely trying to keep with L’Aurore.

  Sensing the mood, Kydd sent word that instead of the other broadside he desired to see of what calibre his gun-captains really were. Until the targets were out of range each gun would have a chance to punish the enemy. With a steady gun-platform and perfect conditions in the mirrored seas, the strike of ball and subsequent skipping were plain, as was a distant flurry when one hit home to savage cheers.

  It was valuable practice but even more pleasing was the spirit it was raising in his ship.

  Once the convoy had arrived safely in Gibraltar and the troops landed, L’Aurore was fitted for her main role: the Toulon blockade. For this the watchword was endurance – on station there could be no returning the seven hundred miles for resupply. They must subsist on what they carried, and that included both sea stores and spare parts.

  Kydd spent some time with the warrant officers, trying to foresee any situation and whether they would be self-sufficient enough to handle it, using what they carried. With L’Aurore’s small hold, there was no margin for extras.

  The next day she sailed from Rosia Bay with the tidal stream, in a decreasing northerly that Kydd recognised as the tail end of the notorious tramontane, an icy blast from the interior of France. It did, however, enable them to crack on at a pace.

  With just three days before they raised Lord Nelson’s squadron, Kydd determined to use every hour of it. Gun practice. Sail drill. Signals. From dawn to dusk they slaved, shaving seconds off their times, competing mast against mast, gun against gun – but that was never the point. In the smoke and chaos of action it would be the crew who stayed at their posts, serving their guns and their ship with the confidence of long practice, that would emerge the victors.

  On the morning of the third day lookouts were doubled while L’Aurore was priddied aloft and alow as though for harbour inspection. According to the rendezvous he had been given, they should raise the battle squadron at midday, Victory and near a dozen of-the-line and frigates under easy sail.

  As always, the rendezvous was a line of latitude rather than a point, running some fifty miles south of Toulon, but the grey expanse of wind-driven sea was empty in every direction. He ran the line down from one end to the other – nothing.

  There was no question of the accuracy of the line and he was sure of their position, so where were they? Had Nelson got word that Villeneuve had sortied and flung his squadron at the French? Somewhere out there the deciding battle of the war might be raging.

  Or was the fleet at Malta or another port revictualling? Should he go in chase or stay where he was? If the squadron returned from wherever it was and he was not here . . . He would give it one day . . .

  But there was another way. Supposing he went north, closed with Toulon and spied into the port. If the French were still there, all urgency was removed and he could return with an easy heart. If they were out – that was another matter and he would fall back on Gibraltar for orders.

  He turned to the master. ‘Mr Kendall, we’re to look into Toulon.’ L’Aurore lay to the wind and sailed north in bursts of spray into the short, choppy seas.

  Next morning the French coast lifted into view, a hard, darker grey. It was not difficult to make out the low cliffs of Cape Cepet, the protective outlying arm around the great harbour and, behind, the two-thousand-foot Mont Faron, which Napoleon
had used to such effect to bombard and recapture the port long ago at the war’s beginning.

  There was little to show the true situation but Kydd had a map drawn up by Sir Sidney Smith during that dramatic episode and saw that if he stood on past the cape to the far shore the harbour would open up to his left.

  He concentrated hard. This would be all too familiar in the months ahead but for now it was the lair of the enemy and had the chill of the unknown about it. After he had joined up he would have access to the accumulated wisdom of years of blockade but at the moment . . .

  A low rumble and gun-smoke arose from the cliffs, but Kydd ignored it and pressed on towards the distant shore. Sure enough the harbour opened up to larboard – first the Grande Rade, the Great Roads, where fleets would assemble before sailing. It was deserted but for a single frigate deep within. Then he saw them: a dense-packed forest of bare masts well beyond in the Petite Rade where Villeneuve’s fleet were safely packed, secured by the artillery on the heights. They had not sortied.

  So where was Nelson? The frigate inside loosened sail and put down its helm, making directly for them. Kydd tensed: to fight or flee? This was the most dangerous location of all, and he had what he needed.

  ‘Take us out, Mr Kendall.’

  L’Aurore swung about until she ran before the wind, rolling fitfully and eager for the open sea. The other frigate, however, had expertly cut to the lee of the protecting arm of Cape Cepet and was fast making to intercept them in a fine show of seamanship and local knowledge.

  Aware that this was not his ship’s most favoured point of sailing, Kydd watched apprehensively as they converged at the low finality of the cape, L’Aurore in the lead by barely a quarter-mile.

  Then there was the thud of a gun from the pursuing frigate and her colours streamed free. English colours.

  A short time later, after an exchange of the private signal of the day, HM Frigate Seahorse heaved to and requested the pleasure of the acquaintance of the captain of HMS L’Aurore. Soon Kydd was in possession of the knowledge that Nelson’s fleet was at that moment in winter quarters, 170 miles to the south-east and expecting him.

  Chapter 7

  ‘Dear Uncle,’ Bowden wrote, wondering just how he should begin the letter, where to start telling of the cascade of impressions and experiences he had met with since he had joined Victory. It was always a good opener, however, to enquire after the health of various family notables and he did so industriously, not omitting Aunt Hester’s megrims and Cousin Ann’s tooth.

  His uncle had taken responsibility for Bowden’s upbringing after his father’s death. He was a very senior captain and needed no lessons in naval strategy but here was a singular thing to pique his interest: Lord Nelson’s hideaway for his fleet. Not for them the ceaseless battering by weather: the French would never put to sea in a storm, which left Nelson’s ships to take welcome refuge among the sheltering islands here in La Maddelena in the very north of Sardinia. Only a day’s sail from before Toulon, they were at anchor in perfect tranquillity and refitting after the winter’s blows.

  It is, Uncle, a species of secret base just a few leagues from the French where we recruit our strength and fettle our poor ships. It’s the wonder of all that when the squadron stands down from its watching and returns to its lair, here is found waiting fresh beef, sea stores enough to delight our stout boatswain’s heart and a regular mail from home.

  It was discovered by Agincourt in the year ’02, and so we call it Agincourt Sound. It’s perfect for us. The native inhabitants are few and barbarous, the land mountainous and uncongenial so we’re left to ourselves in as fine a harbour as ever I saw.

  Just how secret the location was he wasn’t sure so he did not specify it in case the mail was captured.

  The Gulf of Genoa in winter I find disagreeable to a degree. Clammy fogs, calms, a heavy swell. I’d as soon take the tramontane blasts of Toulon than that misery.

  His uncle, though, would not take kindly to complaints about sea conditions so he quickly turned to other matters:

  I have a particular friend, he is Richard Bulkeley who messes with me in the gunroom. He’s an American midshipman, his father was with Nelson when they were young officers in Nicaragua. He’s a wag at dinner and a sharp hand at cards, knows tricks that have us in a roar. He’s made Captain Hardy’s aide, so you may believe he’s a bright fellow.

  Bowden paused in his writing. Thomas Masterman Hardy, a tall, disciplined officer, was a fearful figure for any midshipman.

  And I’ve been taken up by Lieutenant Pasco to serve with him at signals.

  His uncle would know by this that he’d done well to achieve a post of such distinction – signals in a flagship were crucial in action and he would, of course, be witness to any battle as well as having privileged knowledge of what passed between the commander-in-chief and his fleet.

  He comes from before the mast, as does the first lieutenant, Mr Quilliam, who takes fools not at all gladly. He’s a fine fighting record and was called by Nelson to join him in Victory in ’03.

  Should he mention Mr Atkinson, the kindly sailing master who had been at the Nile and Copenhagen both and was likewise called for by Nelson? Or Mr Bunce, the jovial carpenter who never tired of proudly telling that Nelson had once described him as ‘a man for whose abilities and good conduct I would pledge my head’?

  Others – the dapper Captain Adair of the Royal Marines, who could be seen with his men at fife and drum, parading on the quarterdeck every evening; the well-read gunner, Rivers, who had once been ashore in an artillery duel with Napoleon, or even Scott, the scholarly chaplain, who, it was said, was privy to more secrets even than the ship’s captain.

  But, dear Uncle, the one whom we all revere, who has our hearts and devotion, he can only be our Nelson!

  How to express the thrill of being addressed by the great admiral, the most famous of the age, in a manner that suggested his reply was considered of significance? To be part of a brotherhood of trust and honour that raised one to a higher plane that made defeat an impossibility, to know an expectation of courage and ardour in battle was shared by every man in the fleet!

  Struggling for words he finished,

  And Victory, this indomitable ark! She’s a famous sailer on a bowline, and many’s the time we’ve thrown out a signal bidding the fleet keep with us, to their mortification.

  He sat back, the guttering lamp casting shadows about the quiet gunroom, others like him taking the opportunity to finish letters to home and family before the mail closed. Soon – everyone said it – there would be a grand battle that would decide the fate of nations. What would happen? What would it be like?

  Oh, and P.S. Who do you think came aboard, captain of L’Aurore frigate? It was Mr Kydd, Uncle! Made post after his gallant action that lost him dear old Teazer. He was civil enough to notice me before he left . . .

  Before the smoke from their salute had cleared Kydd’s barge was in the water, stroking smartly for the stately bulk of the flagship of commander-in-chief Mediterranean, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson. In it was the captain of HMS L’Aurore in full-dress uniform to call upon him and receive his orders.

  Poulden growled, ‘Oars!’ and the barge slowed to kiss the fat sides of Victory precisely at the side-steps. Kydd addressed himself to the task of mounting the side in a manner befitting the full majesty of a post-captain.

  Pipes pealed out above him and he heard distant shouts from a Royal Marine guard brought to attention. It came to the present with a crash as he passed into the ornamented entry port and Kydd’s heart was full.

  Then came an impression of unimaginable size, sudden gloom after the open sky, the double line of the side-party – and at the inboard end among other officers a slight figure in gold lace, decorated with four stars, who advanced on him with a charming smile. Kydd snatched off his hat and bowed.

  ‘Welcome aboard, sir! And it’s a right welcome sight you and your ship are too, Captain,’ Nelson said, with disarming warmth.
We shall take a sherry together and be damned to the hour!’

  ‘I’d be honoured, sir,’ was all Kydd could find to say.

  The admiral’s day cabin was vast and, with the spread of stern windows right across, as light and airy as a country house. ‘Dry, Mr Kydd?’

  ‘Oh, er – yes, my lord,’ Kydd stuttered, at the last moment realising his host was referring to the sherry.

  They found chairs and raised glasses to each other. ‘It must be . . . Was it not at our council of war in ’ninety-eight before the Nile when last we spoke? When we lost the French before we found ’em again in Aboukir Bay?’ It would never be forgotten by Kydd, who murmured a polite agreement.

  ‘Frigates! I must have frigates!’ Nelson went on harshly, the charm suddenly replaced by deadly seriousness. ‘If we’d had even a handful of ’em about me that day we would have taken Bonaparte at sea alive and the world a better place!’

  ‘Sir.’

  There was no doubt where this conversation was leading, but equally swiftly the hard glint softened and, almost gaily, Nelson added, ‘Yet it must be accounted that if de Brueys had any notion of the employment of frigates he would have had them ranging seaward, not at moorings in the bay. We’d then find a very different reception waiting, don’t you think?’

  ‘Which would rob us of the completest victory that ever was!’ Kydd replied stoutly.

  ‘Quite!’ Nelson said, and relaxed into his armchair, fixing Kydd with his one sound eye. ‘Tell me, what is your understanding of the duties of a frigate, sir?’

  ‘Why, in a grand action o’ fleets they are to—’

  ‘The least of their duties, Mr Kydd, as your battle orders will attest. And?’

 
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