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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' 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.

Bolitho nodded. 'Very well, gentlemen, prepare to get under way. I will come on deck in ten minutes.' He met Vibart's eye. 'I shall be interested to see the men at their stations, Mr. Vibart. A bit of sail drill might take their minds off their troubles for a while!'

The officers filed away and Stockdale firmly closed the door. Bolitho sat down and stared at the piles of books and papers. He had tried to find an opening and had failed. There was a barrier, a shield of resentment, or was it fear? He had to find out himself. He could trust no one, confide in nobody until he was sure of his ground.

He looked at Stockdale and asked quietly, 'Well, how do you like the Phalarope?'

The ex-fighter swallowed hard, as he always did to clear his maimed cords. 'She's a good craft, Captain.' He nodded slowly. 'But I don't care much for the meat inside the bones!' He placed Bolitho's sword carefully beside the pistol rack and added meaningly, 'I should keep these by you, Captain. Just in case!'

Richard Bolitho climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck and made himself walk slowly to the weather rail. The frigate was alive with fresh activity, and he could see men standing at the capstan bars, while others waited below the masts with their petty officers. He gauged the wind against his cheek and glanced quickly aloft at the masthead pendant. The ship tugged at her cable eagerly and fretfully, as if she too wanted to be free of the land once again, and Bolitho curbed his own impatience as he watched and waited the final preparations for sea.

The decks gleamed with blown spray and drizzle, and he realised with a start that he was already soaked to the skin. But perhaps it was just as well that his seamen should see him unshrouded in watchcoat and unprotected from the weather as indeed they were themselves.

He caught sight of the midshipman Maynard hovering by the lee rail, and again thanked God for his ability to remember names after hearing or reading them but once.

`You are in charge of signals, Mr. Maynard?' The youth nodded, his thin body looking like a scarecrow against the angry water alongside. `Very well. Make a signal to the Flag. "Ready to proceed".'

He saw the flags soaring aloft and immediately forgot them as Vibart strode aft his face set in a grim frown.

`Anchor's hove short, sir!' He touched his hat. `All stores secured!'

`Very well.' Bolitho lifted his glass and watched the flags blowing out from the shore signal tower. Maybe, just to the right, from his warm room at the inn, the admiral would be watching.

Maynard yelled, `Reply, sir! "God speed and good luck"!'

Bolitho handed his glass to Stockdale and thrust his hands beneath the tails of his coat. `Get the ship under way if you please. Lay a course to, weather the headland.' He would take no part in it. He would watch each man. And every man would know it.

The boatswain's mates took up the cry, `Hands aloft! Loose tops'Is!'

The rigging and shrouds were suddenly alive with swarming figures as the topmen ran aloft as surefooted as cats, the laggards urged on mercilessly by the petty officers with fists and ropes ends alike.

'Break out the anchor!' Mr. Quintal, the barrel-chested boatswain, swung his cane over the straining forecastle hands. `Heave! Put yer backs into it, you whimperin' old women!' His cane whacked down and a man cried out. `Heave! Heave!' The capstan jerked and then cranked steadily as the dripping cable came inboard.

`Loose heads'ls!' The cry was passed along the deck like a chant. High above, the released canvas flapped and banged in the wind, and the men strung out along the swaying yards like ants kicked and grappled with each growing area of rebellious sail.

Bolitho ignored the flying spray and watched the men dashing from one job to the next. The shorthandedness was all the more apparent now with the topmen aloft.

Herrick called from the bows, `Anchor's aweigh, sir!'

Like a released animal the frigate paid off into the wind, her deck heeling, sharply as the gust found and held her.

Vibart grated. `Man the braces there! Look alive!'

The men at the braces laid back heaving and panting until the great yards began to squeak round. Then the wind filled the sails and the billowing canvas thundered out hard and full as the Phalarope went about and gathered way.

By the time the anchor was catted and made fast the land was already drawing away on the starboard quarter, the Isle of Wight quite invisible in a curtain of drizzle and spray.

Everything creaked and banged as the ship continued to swing on course, with shrouds and rigging whining like the strings of some mad orchestra.

Bolitho watched the unwanted men sliding down the stays and adding their weight to the men at the braces. `Lay her on the port tack, Mr. Vibart.' He looked back across the taffrail and tried to recall what was so terrible about Captain Pomfret. He remembered the man's cold eyes, and the cowed faces of his men.

Proby was standing hump backed beside the quartermaster, his battered old hat over his ears like a candle-snuffer. Bolitho said, `Let her run freely, Mr. Proby. There may be need for reefing down later, but I want to reach Falmouth as soon as possible.'

The master watched the captain's slim figure beside the rail and sucked his teeth. Pomfret had never let the frigate have her head. Now she was flying like a mad thing as more and more canvas crept along her yards and exploded, full-bellied before the wind. When he looked at the spiralling mastheads he could almost imagine they were bending. But his eyesight was not so good now, so he made no comment.

Vibart stood at the quarterdeck rail one foot on a carronade slide, his eyes slitted as he watched the men at their stations. Once he looked back too, towards Portsmouth, where Pomfret had left the ship under orders. Where Bolitho had come aboard to replace him, and by so doing had killed Vibart's own chance of promotion.

He watched Bolitho's profile and felt the anger running through him like fire. It was five thousand miles to Hood's squadron. A lot could happen before that.

He awoke with a start as Bolitho said crisply, `Dismiss the watch below, Mr. Vibart, and double the lookouts.' He gestured towards the open channel. `Here, everyone is an enemy.' He gave Vibart a meaning glance and went below.

2. BEWARE, THE PRESS!

The gig's crew pulled steadily towards the stone jetty and then gratefully tossed their oars as Stockdale growled an order and the bowman jabbed at a ringbolt with his boathook.

Bolitho turned his head to look back at the frigate and smiled slightly to himself. The Phalarope was anchored well out in Falmouth Bay, her sleek shape black and stark against the sea and watery sunlight which had at last managed to break through the scudding clouds. The ship had made a slow approach towards the headland, and he had no doubt that her presence had long since been reported, and every able-bodied man in the town would have taken full advantage of the warning to make himself scarce from the dreaded press.

By his side, huddled in his boat cloak, Lieutenant Thomas Herrick'sat in silence, his eyes watching the rain-soaked hills beyond the town and the grey, timeless bulk of the castle above Carrick Roads. There were several small craft moored in the safety of the Roads, coasters and tubby fishing boats enjoying the shelter and the protection of the anchorage.

Bolitho said, `A brisk walk will do us good,' Mr. Herrick. It may be the last chance we get for a while.' He stepped stiffly from the boat and waited until Herrick had followed him up the worn steps. An ancient sailor with a grey beard called, `Welcome, Captain! It is a fine ship you have out there!'

Bolitho nodded. A Cornishman himself, and a native of Falmouth, he knew well enough that it was unlikely any younger men would dare to stay and pass idle remarks to a King's officer. Frigates were too busy to enter port unless for one thing. To gather men.

Vibart had voiced that very thing as the Phalarope had swooped through the night, her sails thundering to the wind, her bow throwing back the spray in an unbroken white wake. But when Bolitho had outlined his plan even he had lapsed into silence.

As a boy Bolitho had often seen the approach, of a ship of war, and had heard the news shouted down the narrow streets, the cry carried from house to house like a distress signal. Young men had dropped their work, bid hasty farewells to their friends and families, and made for the safety of the hills, where they could watch and wait until the ship had made sail and dipped towards the horizon. There was a rough coast road above the cliffs which led north-east away from Falmouth towards Gerrans Bay and St. Austell. No press gang would take the time and trouble to follow them. Hampered by weapons and the short breath left by lack of exercise, they would know such efforts to be wasted. No, there were few who were slow or stupid enough to allow the King's men an easy catch.

In pitch darkness Bolitho had turned the ship inshore and heaved to, the deck canting savagely to the stiff wind and the swift offshore currents. Old Proby had been at first doubtful, and then had openly showed his admiration. There were no beacons, and apart from a dull shadow of land there was nothing to show that Bolitho had found the exact point below Gerrans Bay where the chart displayed a tiny crescent of beach.

A landing party had been detailed soon after leaving Portsmouth, and below the quarterdeck, their faces pale in a shaded lantern, the selected men had listened to Bolitho's instructions.

`I am putting you ashore here in the two cutters. You will be in two parties. Mr. Vibart and Mr. Maynard with one, and Mr. Farquhar with the second.' He had sought out the severe face of Brock, the gunner. `Mr. Brock will also accompany the second party.' Farquhar might be too eager if left alone, he thought. Brock's experience and self-contained efficiency would make a nice balance.

`If I know Falmouth, as soon as the ship appears in the Bay at first light the sort of men we are after will make their way along the coast road as fast as they can go. If your parties keep up a steady march along that road as soon as you leave Pendower Beach, they should run right into your arms. It saves selection, I believe.' He had seen Brock nod his narrow head approvingly. `The boats will return to the ship and you can march straight on to Falmouth.' A few of the men sighed, and he had added calmly, `It is only five miles. It is better than tramping around the town for nothing.'

With Herrick at his side he walked briskly up the sloping road towards the neat houses, his shoes slipping on the wellremembered cobbles. By now Vibart must have made some catches, he thought. If not, if he made his first misjudgement, it would only help to add to the tension in the Phalarope.

Lieutenant Okes was still aboard in charge of the ship until his return, and Captain Rennie's marines would be able to deter anyone who still hoped to desert. Even a desperate man would find it hard to swim the long stretch of tossing water from the anchored frigate.

He glanced sideways at Herrick and said abruptly, `You have been aboard for two years, I believe?' He watched the guard drop behind the lieutenant's eyes. He had an open, homely face, yet there was this reserve, this caution, which seemed to symbolise for Bolitho the attitude of the whole ship.- It was as if they were all cowed to a point where they neither trusted nor hoped. He added, `According to, the log you were officer of the watch when the trouble started?'





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