Victory, p.18

Victory, page 18



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  ‘He’s mortified to confess that a banquet of the usual form will not be possible in the circumstances.’

  Kydd bowed again, then discovered that a modest reception in the evening for his officers was to be expected.

  ‘I should be honoured to attend, sir,’ he said graciously. The Russian nodded, then disappeared into the residence.

  Foresti turned to Kydd. ‘Captain, I think you and I should talk together. Your ship?’

  Foresti sat in a frigid silence as they were rowed out to L’Aurore but clearly knew enough of naval etiquette to allow Kydd to leave the boat first to be piped aboard before he himself was escorted in.

  In Kydd’s great cabin Foresti ignored the grand appointments and waved aside Tysoe’s offer of refreshments. He looked pointedly at Renzi.

  ‘My confidential secretary of some years, Mr Renzi,’ Kydd said firmly. ‘His learning and linguistic accomplishments have been remarked at the highest level in England.’

  ‘Renzi? You have the Italian?’

  ‘Si, abbastanza bene.’

  ‘And your Greek?’

  Renzi added modestly.

  ‘In the Ionians,’ Foresti remarked acidly, ‘your classical parlance is as donkey dung, sir.’ He looked intently at Kydd. ‘I come to beg that you will tread very lightly about your business in the Levant. All is not as it seems, and should you lose the confidence of the peoples . . .’

  ‘Sir. You are known to us and I’m persuaded we are to be guided by your wisdom and sagacity,’ Renzi said carefully. ‘Is there perhaps something we should be particularly aware of that will help us in our dealings?’

  Foresti gave a tight smile. ‘The captain here will understand that merchant ships have a colourful notion of bearing fair documentation. False papers are more to be expected in every case. Neutral bottoms are where you will find your irregular cargoes – but all this is well known to your profession.

  ‘What is important for you to understand is that you sons of Nelson believe you have driven the French from the Mediterranean. Nothing is more wrong. They are everywhere, currying favours, intriguing against rulers who treat with the English, preparing for the time when they will return victoriously.’

  He drew out a blue handkerchief and blew into it. ‘Their agents are pointing to the success Bonaparte commands in Europe, that in only a short while England will be no more and that it would be well for the wise to be on the winning side.

  ‘Your allies? Sultan Selim in Constantinople has no control over his satraps, who govern their petty kingdoms in corruption and tyranny. Ali Pasha rules in the Morea – they call him “the butcher of Yannina” but the Russians and the French hasten to do him homage, as does your good Lord Nelson himself. And the Turkish Navy may be at sea, but it favours the French and will never fight for you.

  ‘The Russians? Mocenigo, I happen to know, is in secret communication with the French and is entirely untrustworthy. The grand Tsar pronounces one thing and does another; their dearest wish is to possess a port that is free from ice the year around and for this they are prepared to fish in troubled waters.’

  Kydd’s face gave nothing away. ‘Then what in your opinion is the greatest peril?’

  Foresti paused for a moment. ‘That depends. For us it must be the thirteen thousand French troops in Italy at Otranto, eight thousand at this moment marching to join them, sixty miles only across the strait from where we sit. They are waiting for when Napoleon launches his assault on England and they will be released to seize back the Ionians and—’

  ‘Thank you, sir. You have made our position plain,’ Kydd said, bringing the conversation to a close. ‘We shall indeed step warily in these parts. Now, is there anything we can do for you, at all?’

  Foresti sighed and indicated that his services as prize agent were always to be had and the safe custody of dispatches to Nelson on their departure would leave him more than satisfied.

  ‘Then I shall see you to the boat,’ Kydd said, rising, and added, ‘Sir, being as you are British consul, you may be saluted with eleven guns on going ashore, if you so desire.’

  ‘Save your powder, Captain. And remember – trust not a soul.’

  ‘Sir, may I name my officers . . .’ Noise and laughter filled the reception room. It was large and very hot with a vast fire at the end tended by ornately uniformed Cossacks; around the room ladies, dressed in a style not seen in London for an age, mingled in the greatest good humour.

  Footmen in colourful sashes and headgear offered fine-cut glasses of a strange Russian potion called vodka. Kydd’s nervousness at representing his country formally melted away, his senses heightened by the rhythms from a trio of players energetically strumming on peculiar triangular instruments and the utterly alien odours wafting about.

  ‘Ze Ritter Kommodor Greig!’ Kydd turned to meet a powerfully built man, with a genial smile, who bowed with a click of the heels. This was the flag-officer of the Russian Ionian Squadron and Kydd hastened to return the compliment.

  ‘My name interests you?’ the man said teasingly. In politeness Kydd had not questioned why the senior Russian commander had perfect English and affected a Scottish name.

  ‘Er, yes.’

  ‘My father Samuil Karlovich, our most distinguished admiral under the Tsarina Catherine, came from Inverkeithing. A Royal Navy lieutenant in the service of the Tsar. We have many such to ornament our navy, sir.’

  ‘And we likewise, er, Kommodor. I had the honour to meet Captain Krusenstern as served at sea with us before he set forth to sail around the world in our Leander and Thames as was. Have you word at all?’

  The talk eddied happily about him as the vodka was tossed back in the Russian way, and nearby he heard Howlett making hesitant talk with an impeccably dressed and decorated civilian. ‘Er, I’ve heard your Greeks can be an unruly parcel to rule. How do you—’

  ‘Ioannis Capodistrias. I’m Ionian but count myself Greek, sir, in this island which is nominally Turk, garrisoned by Russia and lately occupied by France. In the article of ruling therefore we naturally compromise on the laws and usages of Venice, which we do all accept.’

  Kydd hid a smile and glanced to the aristocratic Curzon, languidly at home in surroundings such as these – ‘Yes, well, you have a new Tsar, I understand. Alexander? All hail to His Imperial Majesty, of course, and I’m privileged to claim your Count Nikita Panin as one of my closer friends. He and I—’

  ‘The graf Nikita Petrovich Panin, who was one of the assassins of His Imperial Majesty’s father, the Tsar Paul?’

  ‘Oh! Er, I had no idea—’

  ‘And who, nevertheless, is now Chancellor of the Russian Empire?’

  Kydd looked about to see how Renzi was coping but couldn’t catch sight of him in the animated throng. He leaned forward politely to hear the laboured English of yet another young officer about to make acquaintance of one of the legendary Nelson’s captains.

  Renzi was enthralled to be hearing about the life of a Dnieper Cossack in passionate French from a heavily bearded cavalryman and did not want to be distracted.

  ‘Sir, this is of the utmost importance!’ a man behind him whispered again, plucking at his sleeve. ‘You must hear me.’

  The burly officer seemed not to notice and rumbled on, a faraway look in his eyes. Renzi threw an angry glare at the little man in thick spectacles but it did not deter him. Renzi rounded on him and demanded to know what it was that could not wait.

  ‘Sir – in private, if you understand,’ the man said, shifting uncomfortably.

  Renzi weighed the loss of the intriguing conversation against the possibility that some problem was affecting their presence. ‘Very well, sir. One moment . . .’ He made his apologies to the officer and reluctantly followed the man out into the garden.

  ‘I do beg pardon for my intrusion, sir. Were it not a business so urgent . . .’

  ‘What is it you want, sir?’

  ‘I have heard you are the secretary of the English frigate?’

nbsp; ‘I am Renzi, the captain’s confidential secretary, sir.’

  ‘Then it is in you I must trust. I am Gospodin Mikhail Orlov, a merchant venturer of Odessa. I have interests in . . . these parts and—’

  ‘Sir, I fail to see how one of His Majesty’s ships of war can possibly be of service to one of – to yourself, Mr Orlov.’

  ‘You don’t? Then answer me this, Mr Renzi – your grand commander Nelson pines after timber and spars, tar and canvas, does he not?’

  To one desperate to maintain a worn-out squadron at sea indefinitely in the worst of weathers, ‘pines’ would not be too strong a word, Renzi allowed without comment.

  ‘And do you not consider he would be interested in a sizeable and reliable supply of such, and at a price half that of the best the Baltic offers?’

  ‘Are you referring to Panormo in Crete, Mr Orlov?’

  ‘No, sir,’ Orlov said, with conviction, ‘I talk real quantity, to fit out the greatest fleet there ever was.’

  ‘And, er, where might this cornucopia be found, sir?’

  ‘This is my difficulty,’ Orlov said quietly. ‘I am recently in possession of information of a . . . a sensitive nature, which will very shortly transform my country. I will not hide it from you – it will confer immense commercial advantage on any possessor who moves quickly and with sagacity.’

  Renzi looked pointedly at his fob-watch. ‘Sir, I cannot see how this can be of any—’

  ‘It will in one stroke free your navy in Malta from any dependence on the Baltic trade, which you now daily risk past the Danes, the Swedes and others who would deny you.’

  ‘Pray tell me, Mr Orlov, what is it you wish us to do?’

  ‘A simple request, Mr Renzi. That I take immediate passage on your fine frigate to Smyrna.’

  ‘That may not be possible, sir. I cannot speak for Captain Kydd but it would seem our business is in the Adriatic, not—’

  ‘Sir, I feel you have not grasped fully the significance of what I offer. I have been open with you, that it will be of profit to myself, but this can only be if your great Nelson has his sea stores. There is no risk attached to yourselves.’

  ‘Mr Orlov. I cannot recommend this to the captain unless the business is made clear. The motions of one of His Majesty’s ships are not to be commanded by others.’

  ‘We have so little time. I simply ask—’

  ‘The business, sir!’

  Orlov’s face took on a hunted look. ‘Very well. What I am about to tell you is in the strictest confidence. The information is not necessarily available to the Ionian administration, um, at the present time.’

  ‘I understand, Mr Orlov. You have my word on it.’

  ‘It is an internal matter, of interest to the Russian peoples alone, that His Imperial Majesty is shortly to open up the canal of Tsar Peter the Great between the Volga and Don rivers.’ At Renzi’s blank expression he explained, ‘This will mean vessels may at last navigate from the Caspian to the Black Sea and then to the Mediterranean, opening up the whole interior. Unlimited resources of timber and flax, metals and tar – it is a prize of incalculable value, Mr Renzi.’

  ‘And your interest in this?’

  ‘The concessions. These are of two kinds – in Russia, trading rights from the pokhodnii ataman ruler, the other, right of passage from the Sublime Porte of Constantinople. Either is useless on its own. Securing both confers on the holder a monopoly of trade.’

  ‘Naturally, you wish for this honour.’

  Orlov looked up with a bitter smile. ‘Sir, neither the ataman nor the Sultan cares for commerce. Their interest is in the regular exaction of cash from this same flowing trade, much more reliably acquired from a single source.

  ‘Since you will ask it, I will tell you that the French will have heard of this opportunity and will be moving quickly to secure the rights and thereby exclude you. And, be assured, these will go to the first to make cause – your Sultan ally will never argue with ready gold.’

  Renzi could see that if it was true they would be in a position to relieve Nelson of a great deal of worry in his task of keeping his fleet at sea. If it was a fantasy, their protective patrol would in any event include the rich Smyrna trading route and Orlov had asked for no other commitment. ‘One thing, Mr Orlov. Why an English frigate?’

  ‘That when we arrive in Smyrna, the Pasha may see that I have the trust of the British and that by this he may see as well you still rule the seas,’ Orlov said.

  ‘And in matters of discretion your movements will never be known to your countrymen.’

  ‘Just so.’

  ‘I will speak with the captain this night. How might we get word to you?’

  Kydd listened gravely to Renzi. ‘There’s only one course open to us, Nicholas. We must speak with Foresti.’

  ‘I’ve thought of that, dear fellow. Unfortunately he has left for Cephalonia and will not return these next few weeks.’

  ‘And then it’ll be too late. I do believe I’ll take a chance with this gentleman, merchant or whoever. Put him down in the books as the captain’s guest and we’ll take a surprise cruise around the Morea to Smyrna. If nothing else it will tell our privateers that L’Aurore is about and hunting.’

  Chapter 8

  The crisp south-westerly could not have been more welcome for the voyage to the furthest corner of the Mediterranean. Kydd’s conscience at this happy prospect was eased by the sight of suspicious sail scuttling out of sight at the sudden presence of such unchallengeable might in their waters.

  Rounding Cythera at the tip of the Morea, L’Aurore stretched north into the Aegean, through the ancient sea full of islands whose names were enshrined in classical history – the Cyclades with Naxos and Thera, past the Dodecanese with Patmos and Rhodes and on to Chios, outpost to Smyrna.

  The harbour was crowded with a vast concourse of shipping of all kinds and the frigate picked her way carefully through to her anchorage. ‘My thanks for this, Captain,’ Orlov said, ‘I will not forget it.’ His baggage was ready on deck, and as soon as L’Aurore had moored he prepared to board the cutter.

  ‘I go now to greet my business agent and together we shall call on Ali Nuri Bey, the Pasha of Smyrna. Er, it would be of some convenience should you remain a day or two displaying your largest English flags, merely for the reason I mentioned before. You may trust that I shall detail the consequences of my mission in a letter after all is concluded. Good day, sir.’

  The boat disappeared into the bustle of the harbour. Kydd turned to his first lieutenant. ‘No liberty, Mr Howlett – we sail in two days.’

  Here there were no flagships to acknowledge or prickly shore fortresses to notice and he would make the most of the short stay. Hands were turned to, part-of-ship, and set about fettling L’Aurore. Some captains were known for their devotion to beauty of appearance, others for the exactitude of the angle of spars across bare masts but for Kydd guns were what gave a man-o’-war purpose, their functioning, reliability, the devotion of the men serving them. The gunner’s party could always be sure of hands for their routine tasks, from chipping shot to flinting gun-locks, and Redmond was proud of the rolling programme of maintenance of his iron charges.

  Close behind for Kydd, however, was that which gave the floating castle its strategic significance – motility. This potent threat carrying more artillery than whole army regiments could be moved like a chess piece to menace the enemy – but only if its miles of rope and acres of canvas were in a sound condition.

  The only time most of the rigging could be safely unreeved was at rest and the boatswain began his painstaking inspection as soon as the seamen had been stood down from sea watches. In a light-sparred ship, like L’Aurore, the need was that much the greater and there were few left unemployed.

  Renzi came on deck and moved to the ship’s side, gazing dreamily across the hard green waters to the rumpled, scrubby land. Kydd wandered over. ‘Not as would stir the heart, Nicholas.’

  ‘Dear fellow, this is not
only the birthplace of Homer but may lay just claim to be the centre of the civilised world.’

  ‘Well, we have Greece to the west’d and—’

  ‘Think of it,’ Renzi said, with passion. ‘A bare hundred miles or so across this wine-dark sea are Athens, Sparta, the plains of Marathon! And close at our backs are the cities of the ancient world – Ephesus, Pergamon, Sardis.’

  ‘And to the north?’ Kydd prompted.

  ‘Ah! Why, it’s Byzantium – Constantinople as now is, the Golden Horn where Jason and the Argonauts sailed, and to go further, there we have the Black Sea, and on to Russia and the Cossack hosts. But strike south and we reach the Holy Land, the oldest and first of mankind, and—’

  ‘And now we’re at our anchor here,’ Kydd said drily, ‘and later it seems a hard beat back to the Adriatic will be required.’

  ‘But consider, this very city has had a river of treasure flowing through it over the long centuries. Now we know it for its fruit, carpets, opium, yet in its day the grand Silk Route of Marco Polo stretched from Cathay thousands of miles across trackless desert and baking plain, the camel caravans three years on their journey to finish at the end of all land – here, in Smyrna.’

  Kydd nodded. ‘Yes, well, when you have had your fill of the sights it would be of service to me should you pen some kind of address to that Pasha fellow. A Turk he is but we have to be—’

  The officer-of-the-watch, Curzon, came up hesitantly. ‘A boat approaching, sir.’

  It was a native watercraft, one of the many criss-crossing the broad roadstead and under a press of sail heading directly for them. A figure aboard waved violently.

  ‘It’s Orlov!’ Kydd said. The man shouted something and Curzon motioned the boatman to come alongside.

  ‘Thank God!’ he spluttered, as he clambered over the rail. ‘You stayed.’

  ‘As requested,’ Kydd said.

  ‘Sir! The very worst!’ he said, throwing his arms up. ‘Er, your cabin?’

  Leaving a startled and curious Curzon, Kydd led the way below.

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