Victory, p.26

Victory, page 26

 

Victory
 


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‘Thank you, my lord.’

  Barham hesitated. ‘I will not dwell on the danger that faces the realm. Instead I will ask, at this time, what forces do you consider you will require for this task?’

  ‘To match the Combined Fleet’s numbers would seem enough, my lord.’

  ‘Then you shall have them – and every resource necessary, just as soon as they can be made available.’ He looked meaningfully at Boyd, who frowned but kept his silence. It would be far from easy merely to locate and contact the ships concerned and only then to go on to make repairs and store them to a battle-worthy state – and time was very short.

  The first lord picked up a well-thumbed copy of Steele’s Navy List and held it out. ‘This mission is of the utmost importance, sir. You may have whomsoever you wish to serve under you.’

  Nelson did not take it. ‘Choose yourself, my lord. The same spirit actuates the whole profession.’ He smiled. ‘Sir, you cannot choose wrong!’

  When the weeping stopped, Cecilia steadied herself. The storm of emotion had shaken her in its intensity but one thing was very clear. She had utterly misunderstood Renzi.

  . . . in the years since we have known each other . . . and it may not have escaped you that my feelings for you are not altogether to be described as those of a brother . . . thus I must accept that in the matter of publishing my hopes are quite dashed, no prospect of an income . . . if any sense of an implicit obligation can be said to exist, I do absolve you from it, in the warm trust that your marriage to another will provide the blessings of security and gratifications that are yours by right . . .

  The poor, dear, hopeless and deeply honourable man! He believed it unprincipled even to imply matrimony while impecunious, demonstrating without any doubt that he cared about her more than he could say.

  Tears sprang again, but were as quickly replaced by a rising tide of resolve. She had to talk to him! At last let him know her true feelings! Then she bit her lip. He was with Thomas, whose ship was in Portsmouth about to sail with Admiral Nelson.

  Against the enemy! She nearly choked at the realisation: so consumed by her own concerns was she that it had not occurred to her that the two men she most cared about were sailing into mortal danger, into the climactic battle of the age that everyone was talking about.

  Everything in her being urged her to go to them, to . . . to . . .

  She stuffed a few things into a small bag and ran from the house. In a storm of feeling she hurried on to the high street towards the Angel, the waypoint for the Portsmouth stage, but as she neared it the coach emerged from the courtyard gate with a crashing of hoofs and jingling of harness, swerving around for the dash south.

  She waved her arms madly. The coachman atop bellowed at her but hauled on the reins, the horses whinnying and jibbing at the treatment. The coach slewed and stopped.

  ‘I must get to Portsmouth!’ she shrieked. ‘My – my brother sails with Nelson!’

  Her tear-streaked features gave the man pause but he shouted gruffly down at her, ‘An’ we’re full, lady – not a chance! Ever’one wants to see Nelson!’

  ‘I’ll – I’ll ride outside – on top! Please!’ she wailed.

  A red-faced passenger leaned out of the window. ‘Get going, y’ wicked-lookin’ rascal – never mind th’ gooney woman!’

  This served to make the coachman relent. ‘Git out of it, Jarge,’ he threw at the hornsman, who grinned and clambered over the baggage to join the postilion. He leaned over and hauled Cecilia up, her dress billowing until she made it on to the narrow seat next to him.

  The whip cracked energetically, the big wheels clattered over the ancient cobblestones and what seemed to Cecilia to be the whole of Guildford gaped up at her. Thrilled and nervous by turns, she watched the road unfold before them and prayed she would be in time.

  Working at his desk in L’Aurore’s great cabin Kydd suddenly looked up. They were peacefully at anchor at Spithead but he was aware of a commotion. Grateful for any excuse to take to the fresh air he joined a curious throng looking over to Victory.

  It seemed her entire company was on the upper deck, their cheering carrying over the water.

  ‘A peace?’ suggested Curzon, doubtfully.

  ‘Sailing orders cancelled an’ liberty t’ both watches, more like,’ Gilbey grunted cynically.

  Then Euryalus, next along, broke into a mad hysteria. This could be no frivolous occasion and L’Aurore’s officers looked at each other in consternation as a boat under a press of sail emerged from behind the ship-of-the-line on a direct course to themselves.

  It passed under their lee and a lieutenant hailed them with cupped hands. ‘A telegraph signal – from the Admiralty. Lord Nelson rejoins the fleet as commander-in-chief to lead against the Combined Fleet in Cadiz.’

  Nelson was back! Like lightning the news spread about L’Aurore and then she, too, had crowded decks with elated seamen cheering in frenzied abandon. The victor of St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen – a fighting admiral like no other, sent to save England!

  While the L’Aurores ‘spliced the mainbrace’ in celebration, Kydd and Renzi raised a quiet glass to each other. There was now no longer any question: the near future would see an encounter that would decide the fate of millions – conceivably the world itself. Would Nelson prevail or would Napoleon’s hordes be free to fall upon England?

  Within a day orders were received that had been sent on ahead by Nelson: Victory and others were to move out to St Helen’s Roads in the lee of the Isle of Wight in preparation for an immediate departure.

  On the day following Kydd watched surging crowds ashore; it took little guesswork to know that Lord Nelson had arrived.

  No flag broke at Victory’s masthead – the commander-in-chief was still ashore. ‘He’ll be at the George,’ Kydd said confidently. ‘And I’m to make my number, I believe.’

  ‘On shore on ship’s business? Then it’s only my duty that I do accompany the captain,’ Renzi said primly, buttoning his waistcoat.

  L’Aurore’s barge joined others converging on the landing place near King Henry’s round tower. There was a press of people in the streets and when they stepped on to the stone quay to walk the few hundred yards to the George it was all they could do to make their way through.

  Cheered and jostled by turns, they finally arrived at the bow-windowed posting house where an impenetrable crush fell back reluctantly at Kydd’s uniform. At the door a number of harassed-looking soldiers made a hurried lane for him and they entered a lower hall, if anything even more crowded.

  Hailing a beefy gate-porter, they finally got up the stairs and into the presence of the great man. Nelson was standing quite at ease, dictating to a secretary and making pleasantries to a pair of well-dressed gentlemen, oblivious to the fawning of several others.

  ‘Ah, Kydd!’ he said, with evident pleasure. ‘I do feel we can at last offer you some sport worthy of the name. Your L’Aurore is ready for sea?’

  ‘Aye aye, sir,’ he stuttered.

  ‘Oh, this is Mr Canning, treasurer of the Navy and this Mr Rose, paymaster general. Without gentlemen like these, we would have no sea service.’ He smiled genially. ‘Do stay, sir – that’s Hardy over there and we’ll raise a glass to England together before we board.’

  The coach swayed and slowed on the choked roads at the approaches to Portsmouth. The driver swore and snapped his whip over the heads of the mob streaming towards Landport gate but without effect. Cecilia pleaded to the uncaring mass to move. They whooped and shouted in return but did not give an inch.

  ‘Never in m’ life seen anythin’ like this’n!’ the coachman said in amazement, fending off a tipsy would-be rider while trying to control the frightened horses. ‘Like as not, we’m as far as we c’n get, lady.’

  ‘Five guineas to get to the high street!’

  He looked at her kindly. ‘Can’t see yez getting into Portsea without ye walks, miss. Help y’ down?’

  Cecilia began thrusting through the unruly crowd, giving a
s good as she got as she struggled on, but her despair mounted. Not knowing Portsmouth well, she turned down a side-street and hurried along, panting and desperate. She had no idea where to find her menfolk but instinct drove her on – towards the sea.

  ‘Well, gentlemen, our destiny awaits. Shall we take boat now?’ Nelson said at last. He went to the window to glance at the sky, provoking an instant roar from the crowd outside.

  ‘The redcoats have been turned out, my lord,’ his flag-captain said diffidently, ‘but they don’t appear to have it in hand.’

  ‘Then I’ll leave by the rear,’ Nelson said crisply. ‘I’ll not embark from Sally Port. There’s a bathing beach at Southsea further along the seafront, as I remember.’

  ‘There is, sir,’ the dockyard commissioner said. ‘If we go by Penny Street and the church, there’s a tunnel let through the wall.’

  ‘Very well.’ But as soon as Nelson emerged from the back door of the George there were frantic shouts and an instant surge, people pressing towards him to catch a glimpse of his face. A number were in tears or falling prostrate while others gawked or shouted.

  As he stepped out into the street the crowd fell back as though mesmerised. Nelson himself was in the greatest good humour, continually raising his hat to the ladies, clasping a hand, acknowledging a knelt prayer. He seemed to move along in a bubble of silent rapture; then after he had passed came redoubled shouts and cheering.

  To Kydd, a few paces behind, it was extraordinary, dream-like. He had no idea where Renzi was but the sea of faces pressing in was unnerving. Some reached out to touch him, paw his uniform, all clamouring for his attention.

  They slowly crossed a green by high earth ramparts, hundreds pouring on to it as it became obvious where they were headed – a woman fell in a swoon and was overwhelmed by the crush. Then they were at a stone bastion by the sea with a small tunnel beneath.

  Ahead of Cecilia there was a swelling roar; nearby people ran to see. She joined them and was carried along on to a greensward rimmed by the grey stone of a low fortification. It could only be Nelson ahead and she knew that nearby must be her brother and the man with whom she wished to spend the rest of her life. Then she saw high earthworks and scrambled to the top with the others to look down on history in the making – and there in a small group walking with Lord Nelson was her brother!

  She screamed out at him but her voice was lost in the din and she saw them disappear into a tunnel – but with no sign of Nicholas. Then there was a rush over the stone fortification as sentries were jostled aside, helpless to stop the crowd. Cecilia found herself fighting for a place at the top of an outer redoubt that looked seaward and down on to a nearby small beach with bathing machines.

  The group emerged from the tunnel on to the beach, Nelson stopping to acknowledge the adoring crowd with waves, his gold lace and four stars glittering in the autumn sunshine. His barge nosed in, and first two important-looking men boarded, with an officer she supposed was Captain Hardy. Nelson turned and took off his hat, waving it at the crowd, which burst into cheering. Then he entered his barge and it shoved off.

  The cheering subsided and what sounded like a huge sigh spread out. Nelson twisted around, waved his hat once more and again the cheers went up. Then a breathy silence descended.

  Kydd was last to embark. His waiting barge came in and, incredibly, there was Nicholas, standing in the sternsheets, while Kydd took his place. Cecilia froze with a mix of fear and exhilaration. Then, in a rising tide of helplessness and passion, she shrieked, ‘Nicholas! Nicholas! I’ll wait for you! I’ll waaait for you! My darling – I’ll waaait!’

  Renzi’s head snapped up, his eyes searching the crowd. She threw her arms about, signalling frantically, but the boat completed its turn and was now pulling strongly away. ‘Nicholas! I’ll waaait!’ she screamed, but by then the boat had disappeared into the throng of small craft.

  Chapter 13

  There was a distinct touch of autumn about the unruly bluster that met the men-o’-war under full sail down-Channel on their way to confront the enemy. L’Aurore fared worst. Needing to keep with the battleships in the fresh gale she wore canvas that had her sore-pressed and her boatswain worried.

  But there was a fierce pride aboard to be part of the most famous battle-fleet of the age. There would be yarns a-plenty on their return, and if there was the historic clash-at-arms everyone expected, then was this not their duty, the reason for their being? There had been no desertions among the men on liberty, the extraordinary scenes at Nelson’s embarkation witnessed by many of them. It was clear that they had been affected, and Kydd felt that the ship’s spirit was now as exalted as his own.

  He went below, allowing Tysoe to remove his streaming oilskins and grateful for a hot negus. ‘What’s that you have, Nicholas?’ he asked, seeing Renzi absorbed in a handwritten sheet.

  ‘Oh, in the mail – from my worthy friend Mr Wordsworth. He’s a poet of a wild and romantical nature, as you’ll agree, but much given to self-reflection. In this he’s asking my opinion on his musing about the present peril. Listen:

  ‘“Yea, to this hour I cannot read a Tale

  Of two brave vessels matched in deadly fight,

  And fighting to the death, but I am pleased

  More than a wise man ought to be; I wish,

  Fret, burn, and struggle, and in soul am there.”’

  Renzi gave a half-smile. ‘If you knew the fellow and the way he’s changed his turbulent ways you’d find it a singular sentiment, my friend.’

  Kydd snorted. ‘Really? I defy anyone o’ true heart to stand mumchance in these times – and wasn’t he all for glorying in the Revolution?’

  ‘As I indicated, his views have altered,’ Renzi said defensively, and laid down the paper. ‘On quite another subject,’ he went on offhandedly, ‘did you by chance notice your sister in Portsmouth at all?’

  ‘Cecilia? When I was in Guildford she wasn’t there, somewhere in Ireland, I thought. Er, why do you ask?’

  ‘I’d swear I saw her on shore when we left, waving and calling out. I couldn’t catch what she shouted in the hullabaloo.’

  ‘I didn’t see her,’ Kydd said, then added slyly, ‘Are you sure it wasn’t just a wish-child?’

  ‘I saw her well enough,’ Renzi said abruptly and, for a fleeting moment, wondered if indeed he had dreamed it. Then again she might have just arrived in England and hurriedly come to see them both off. Or was it only for her brother?

  A stab of longing pierced him – was it his name she had shouted? Did this mean . . . ?

  But, then, it couldn’t be – she would have received the letter of release by now. The hope died.

  Two more ships-of-the-line, Ajax and Thunderer, joined the few hove-to off Plymouth and, without delay, the group got under way again. The weather moderated before dusk and a workmanlike north-westerly sent them foaming through the waves.

  They sighted the well-known Rock of Lisbon and at dawn the next day Cape St Vincent. L’Aurore was detached to go ahead to reach Admiral Collingwood with orders to refrain from gun salutes when Lord Nelson joined: there was to be no indication to watchers ashore that Collingwood was being reinforced.

  L’Aurore raised them cruising some fifteen miles to seaward of the old Spanish port. A beautiful and terrifying sight: sombre lines of battleships – twenty, thirty of them, the most powerful British fleet Kydd had ever seen, more than twice as many as had fought at the Nile, the most fearsome weapon ever wielded by one man.

  He passed his message, and when Nelson joined towards evening there were no seventeen-gun salutes, no hoisting of colours, simply a general joy running throughout the fleet.

  On the following day, one by one, the captains of the various ships were rowed to Victory and welcomed aboard. ‘Ah, Mr Kydd,’ Nelson said warmly, standing in glittering full-dress at the gold-leafed entry port, ‘do enjoy our little birthday party, sir.’

  In the splendour of the admiral’s dining cabin, he found that the birthday
was in fact Lord Nelson’s own, his forty-seventh. Remarkably therefore, Kydd realised, Victory must be herself close to fifty years old.

  It was an evening to remember: the glitter of crystal and silver on the huge mahogany table, the blaze of gold lace and decorations, and the meeting of men whose names were already famous: Harvey of Temeraire, Fremantle of Neptune, Berry of Agamemnon, Duff of Mars – and the frigate captains: Blackwood of Euryalus, Prowse of Sirius, Dundas of Naiad and more, all standing with a glass and chatting amiably.

  When Nelson entered he went up to Fremantle and teasingly held up a letter brought out by him from England. ‘You’re expecting a happy event, sir – what is your desire, a boy or girl?’

  ‘A girl would gratify, my lord.’

  ‘Then be content, dear fellow,’ Nelson said, handing it over. ‘And Betsey confides she would be in doubts of your health should we venture past the strait.’

  He passed on to other captains and seemed to revel in the warmth and fellowship that filled the cabin. ‘Shall we dine?’ he announced, after a discreet prompt from his steward.

  The meal was declared a great success and, mellowed by wine, Kydd relaxed back in his chair as the table was cleared.

  Nelson, seated at the centre, called for attention. ‘Now, gentlemen! As is my way I would have you in no doubt as to my strategicals. Let me be plain with you – we are now twenty-nine of-the-line. If the enemy delay, which I doubt, they bid fair to make increase to forty-six, even fifty, while in return it would be foolish of us to expect more than a dozen further.’

  There was calm confidence in the faces as he continued: ‘What I seek is not a victory. Not even a glorious triumph. Nothing short of annihilating the enemy will satisfy. All shall be devoted to such an end.’

  He had their rapt attention now. ‘My very greatest desire is to entice the enemy from port. Only when he is out in the open sea in his full numbers can I think to destroy him utterly. Therefore my fleet will lie fifty miles to the west and a token force only will remain in view of the port. The motions of the enemy, however, will be communicated to me in every detail by the watching inshore frigates and a line of repeating ships.’

 
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