ALEXANDER KENT - TO GLORY WE STEER

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    TO GLORY WE STEER
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Portsmouth, 1782. His Britannic Majesty's frigate, Phalarope, is ordered to assist the hard-pressed squadrons in the Caribbean. Aboard is her new commander-Richard Bolitho. To all appearances the Phalarope is everything a young captain could wish for, but beneath the surface she is a deeply unhappy ship-her wardroom torn by petty greed and ambition, her deckhands suspected of cowardice under fire and driven to near-mutiny by senseless ill-treatment.

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He began to read himself in, his voice carrying crisply above the sigh of wind and the steady thrumming of stays and rigging.

It was addressed to Richard Bolitho, Esquire, and required him forthwith to go on board and take upon him the charge and command of captain in His Britannic Majesty's frigate Phalarope. He finished reading and rolled the scroll in his hands as he looked down at the assembled faces. What were they thinking and hoping at this moment?

He said: `I will address the men further, Mr. Vibart.' He thought he saw a gleam of resentment in Vibart's deepset eyes, but ignored it. The man looked old for his rank, maybe seven or eight years older than himself. It could not be pleasant to see a chance of command moved back another pace by his sudden arrival. `Are you in all respects ready to proceed to sea?'

Vibart nodded. `Yes,.sir.' He sounded as if he meant to say 'of course'. `We were warped out here a week ago, and the fresh water came aboard this forenoon by lighter. We are fully provisioned in accordance with the admiral's orders.'

`Very good." Bolitho turned back-to the crew. Sir Henry Langford had taken no chance, he thought dryly. With the ship fully provisioned and safely anchored away from the shore there was little chance of contaminating the fleet with her unhappiness. He longed for a few minutes alone so that he could read fully the extent of his orders. They might give him a further clue to the puzzle.

. He cleared his throat. `Now, men, I just want to tell you of our destination.' They would know he had had no time to inform his officers, and this immediate show of confidence might well help to bridge the gulf between quarterdeck and forecastle.

`England is fighting for her life! Even as we lie here, anchored and impotent, our country is at war with France and Spain, with the Dutch and the rebellious colonialists in the Americas. Every single ship is needed to win the day, each man amongst you is vital to our just cause!' He paused and waited a few seconds. In the Sparrow his men would have cheered, would have shown some animation. Suddenly, as he stared along the packed, expressionless faces he felt a pang of longing and loneliness. In his mind's eye he could see the little sloop's cheerful, tanned company, like a lot of carefree pirates. The healthy faces, the feeling of oneness which was totally absent here. He saw Stockdale standing by the lee rail and wondered what he thought about his new shipmates.

He allowed a note of hardness to creep into his voice. 'Today we sail for Falmouth.' He steeled himself. `And from thence to the West Indies to join Sir Samuel Hood against the French and their allies!'

No individual called out, but something like a moan of pain transmitted itself through the packed figures below him. A petty officer snarled, `Silence on deck! Keep quiet, you scum!'

Bolitho added flatly, `I ask nothing but your loyalty. I will do my duty, and I would wish you to do the same!' He turned on his heel. `Carry on, Mr. Vibart. We will make sail in one hour. See that all boats are secured, and then be so good as to have the anchor hove short.' His tone was cold and final, but the lieutenant blocked his way, his mouth working angrily.

`But, sir! The West Indies!' He struggled for words. `God, we've been on the blockade for two years!'

Bolitho let his voice carry to, the other officers. `And I have been away for six, Mr. Vibart!' He walked aft where Stockdale soundlessly marked the cabin hatch for his retreat. `I want all officers and senior warrant officers in my cabin in ten minutes!'

He ran lightly down the ladder, his head automatically bowed beneath, the low deck beams. Right aft, below a spiralling lantern, a red-coated marine snapped to attention outside his cabin door. Beyond it would be his haven, the only place aboard a crowded ship where he could think, and dream alone.

Stockdale held open the door and stood aside as Bolitho entered the cabin, which after Sparrow's cramped and spartan quarters seemed almost spacious.

The sloping stern windows ran the whole width of the main cabin, and the thick glass gave a wide, panoramic picture of tossing water and the hostile, grey sky. The air was heavy and damp, and once again he was conscious of the cold in his limbs. It would be good to get back to the sun, he thought. To see blue and gold through those windows, and know again -the peace of a friendly sea.

A partition hid his sleeping quarters, and another concealed the small chart room. The main cabin itself contained a good table and matching chairs, as well as a bulkhead desk and a hanging wardrobe for his uniforms which even now Stockdale was unpacking from the boxes.

The previous captain had done well for himself, Bolitho thought. On either side of the cabin, discreetly hidden in a canvas cover, was a big twelve-pounder, lashed down like some leashed beast, so that even here, in the captain's own domain, the air would be filled with smoke and death when action found the frigate.

He made himself sit quietly on the padded bench below the windows, and ignoring Stockdale's furtive movements and the shipboard noises above and beyond the door began to read his orders.

But apart from the usual directions the orders told him nothing. There were extra marines aboard, with a full captain in charge of them instead of the original sergeant. That was interesting. Sir Henry Langford obviously considered that if all else failed Bolitho, could defend himself with the afterguard.

He slammed the thick papers on the table and frowned. He did not want protection. He had meant what he had said. Hewanted loyalty. No, he needed loyalty!

The deck canted beneath him and he heard the patter of bare feet overhead. In spite of everything he was glad to be leaving the land. At sea you had room to think, and space to act. Only time was at a premium.

Exactly ten minutes after Bolitho had left the quarterdeck the officers filed through the door into his cabin.

Vibart, his head lowered beneath the deck beams, introduced each one in order of seniority in the same rasping tone.

Okes and Herrick, the two other lieutenants, and Daniel Proby, the master. The latter was old and weathered like carved wood, his body round-shouldered beneath his wellworn coat. He had a lugubrious, heavy-jowled face, and the most mournful eyes Bolitho had ever seen. Then there was Captain Rennie of the marines, a slim and languid young man with deceptively lazy eyes. Bolitho thought that he at least would guess that there might still be trouble in the offing.

The three midshipmen stood quietly in the background. Farquhar was the most senior, and Bolitho felt a small pang of uneasiness as he studied the youth's tight lips and haughty expression. The admiral's nephew might be an ally. He could equally be the admiral's spy. The other young gentlemen, Neale and Maynard, seemed pleasant enough, with the usual crumpled cheekiness which most midshipmen reserved as their defence against officers and seamen alike. Neale was. minute and chubby, and could not be more than thirteen, Bolitho thought. Maynard, on the other hand, was keen-eyed and as skinny as a pike, and watched his captain with a fixed and intent expression which might mean anything.

Then there were the senior warrant officers. The professional men. Evans, the purser, a small ferret in a plain dark coat, dwarfed by Ellice, the surgeon, brick-red and perspiring,.with anxious rheumy eyes.

Bolitho stood with his back to the windows, his hands clasped behind him. He waited until Vibart had finished speaking and then said, `We shall get to know each other better very soon, gentlemen. For the moment let me say that I shall expect all of you to do your best to pull the ship's people together into one efficient company. When I left the Indies things were not going well for England. It is likely, indeed it is more than probable, that the French will take full advantage of our military commitments in that area for their own ends. Action will certainly seek us out, and when that happens I want this ship to give a good account of herself.' He watched their faces, trying to pierce their guarded expressions. His gaze fell on Herrick, the third lieutenant. He was a roundfaced, competent looking officer, but there was an air of assumed attentiveness about him, like one who had been betrayed in the past and no longer trusted a first impression.

He dropped his eyes to the deck as Vibart said, `May I ask if we're being despatched to the Indies because of the trouble we had aboard, sir?' He stared unflinchingly at Bolitho's grey eyes, his voice challenging.

'You may ask.' Bolitho watched him narrowly. There was something dominant about Vibart. A sense of inner force which seemed to cow all the others into mere spectators. He said calmly, 'I have studied the reports and the logs. I consider that the near-mutiny,' he let his voice hang on the last word, 'was caused as much by negligence as anything else.'

Vibart replied hotly, 'Captain Pomfret trusted his officers, sir!' He pointed to the books on the table. 'You can see from the log books that the ship did all which could be expected of her!'

Bolitho pulled a book from beneath the others and saw Vibart look momentarily off guard.

'I often find that this, the punishment book, is a better gauge of a ship's efficiency.' He turned the pages idly, forcibly hiding the disgust he had felt when he had first examined it. 'In the past six months over a thousand lashes were awarded to the crew.' His voice was cold. 'Some men received four dozen at a time. One apparently died after punishment.'

Vibart said thickly, 'You can't win men by weakness, sir!'

'Nor by senseless cruelty, Mr. Vibart!' His tone was like a whip. 'In future I will have more attention to leadership than to brutality in my ship!' He controlled his voice with an effort. 'Also, I want every man fitted out with proper clothing from the slop chest before we reach Falmouth. This is a King's ship and not a Spanish slaver!'

There was a sudden heavy silence, so that ship and sea intruded into the cabin. The clatter of deck gear, the sluice of the tide around the rudder, and the distant bark of commands added to Bolitho's sense of isolation.

He continued evenly, 'At Falmouth we will make efforts to increase our company to full strength. I 'will send parties of trusted hands ashore to press suitable men for service. Not cripples and young boys, but men. Do I make myself clear?'

Most of them nodded. Lieutenant Okes said carefully, 'I have often read of your exploits in the Gazette, sir.' He swallowed painfully and glanced quickly at Herrick. 'I think the whole ship will be happy to have you as captain.' His voice trailed away miserably and he fidgeted with his sward.

Bolitho nodded. `Thank you, 'Mr. Okes.' He could not afford to add anything else. Okes might be seeking favouritism, or making haste to cover up some old misdemeanour. But still, it was a beginning.

He added, 'I cannot alter what Captain Pomfret did or did not do. I have my own ways, and I expect them to be considered at all times.' From the corner of his eye he saw the master shaking his head doubtfully. 'Do you wish to say anything, Mr. Proby?'

The old man looked up with a jerk, his jowls shaking. 'Er, no, sir! I was just thinking it will make a change to navigate in some deep water instead o' all these shoals an' mudbanks!' He smiled, the effort only adding to his mournful appearance. 'The young gentlemen will benefit from a long voyage, no doubt?'

' It was meant in all seriousness, but the midshipman Neale nudged his companion Maynard and they both tittered. Then Neale saw Vibart's frown and hurriedly looked at his feet.





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