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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TO GLORY WE STEER - читать книгу онлайн бесплатно, автор ALEXANDER KENT

Bolitho stared at him. Stockdale dead. And he had not even seen him fall.

Farquhar pushed forward, his features wildly excited. 'Captain, sir! The lookouts report that our fleet has broken the enemy's lines in two places!' He stared round the stained, watching faces. 'Rodney has broken the French line, do you hear?'

Bolitho felt the breeze across his cheek, feeling its way through the battle's stench like an awed stranger. So de Grasse was beaten. He stared at the listing frigate below him, feeling the prick of emotion behind his eyes. Was all this sacrifice for nothing after all?

Herrick took his arm and said thickly, 'Look,i sir! Over yonder!'

As the freshening wind pushed away the curtain of smoke from the embattled and shattered ships, Bolitho saw the tall outline of the big three-decker. Her guns were still run out, and her paintwork was gleaming and unscarred by any cannon. Throughout the fighting she had lain impotent or unwilling to face the holocaust of close combat, and no British blood had been given to her massive armament.

Yet in spite of all these things there was another flag flying above her own. The same that flew on the dismasted Cassius and aboard the Ondine. The same as the Phalarope's own ensign and the victorious Volcano which now pushed her way through the last rolling bank of smoke.

Herrick asked soberly, `Do you need more than that, sir? She's struck to you!'

Bolitho nodded and then climbed over the bulwark. `We will get the ship under way, Mr. Herrick. Though I fear she may never fight again!'

Herrick said quietly, `There'll be other ships, sir.'

Bolitho stepped down on to the Phalarope's gangway and walked slowly above the spent and sweating gunners.

`Other ships?' He touched the splintered rail and smiled sadly. `Not like this one, Mr. Herrick.' He tilted his head and looked up at the flag.

`Not like the Phalarope!'

EPILOGUE

Lieutenant Thomas Herrick pulled his boat cloak closer. around his shoulders and picked up his small travelling bag. The houses around the cobbled square were thickly covered in snow, and the wind which blew strongly inland from Falmouth Bay and seemed to pierce his bones to the marrow, told him that there was more to come. For a moment longer he watched the ostlers guiding the steaming horses into the inn yard, leaving the slush-stained coach which Herrick had just vacated isolated and empty. Through the inn windows he could see a cheerful fire and hear voices raised in laughter and busy conversation.

He was suddenly tempted to go inside and join these unknown people. After the long journey from Plymouth, and four days on the road before that, he felt drained and weary, but as he looked up at the mist-shrouded hump of Pendennis. Castle and the bleak hillside beyond he knew he was only deluding himself. He turned his back on the inn and started up the narrow lane from the square. Everything seemed smaller than he remembered it. Even the church with its low wall and the leaning stones within the graveyard appeared to have shrunk since that last and only visit. He stepped sideways into a mound of muddy snow as two shouting children dashed past him dragging a homemade sledge. Neither gave Herrick a glance. That too was different from the last time.

Herrick ducked his head as a strong gust whipped the snow from a low hedgerow and across his face, and when he looked up again he saw the old house, square and grey, facing him like a picture from all those past memories. He quickened his pace, suddenly nervous and unsure of himself.

Hd heard the bell jangling within the house, and even as he released the heavy iron handle the door swung open, and a neat fair-haired woman in a dark dress and white cap stood aside to greet him.

Herrick said uncertainly, `Good day, ma'am. My name is Herrick. I have just driven from the other side of England.'

She took his cloak and hat and stared at him with a strange, secret smile. `That's a long journey, sir. The master is expecting you.'

At that moment the door at the far side of the hall swung open and Bolitho stepped forward to meet him. For a long moment they both stood quite still, their hands clasped in an embrace which neither wanted to break.

Then Bolitho said, `Come into the study, Thomas. There is a good fire waiting!'

Herrick allowed himself to be placed in a deep leather chair, and let his eyes stray over the old portraits which lined the panelled walls.;

Bolitho watched him gravely. 'I am glad you came, Thomas. More glad than I can say.' He seemed nervous and ill at ease.

derrick said, `How it all comes back to me as I sit here. It is a year and a month since we weighed anchor from Falmouth and sailed for the West Indies together.' He shook his head sadly. `Now it is all finished. The peace is signed at Versailles. It is over.'

Bolitho was staring into the fire, the dancing reflections playing across his dark hair and his grey, steady eyes. He said suddenly, 'My father is dead, Thomas.' He paused as Herrick jerked upright in his chair. `And so is Hugh, my brother!'

Herrick did not know what to say. He wanted to find some word of comfort, something to ease the pain from Bolitho's voice. Without effort he could throw his mind back over the months, to the aftermath of the battle when the listing, battered Phalarope had limped painfully to Antigua for repairs. Herrick had known that Bolitho was offered an immediate passage home to England, for a better and bigger command. But he had stayed with the frigate. Nursing her through every indignity of the dockyard, and watching over the care and treatment of her sick and wounded men.

October had arrived, and with her refit only half completed the Phalarope was ordered home to England. The Battle of the Saintes, as it was soon to be known, was the last great struggle of that unfortunate war. As the frigate dropped her anchor at Spithead, England rejoiced to the sounds of peace. It was an unsatisfactory agreement, but for England the war had been too long on the defensive. And as Pitt had remarked to the House of Commons, 'A defensive war can only end in -inevitable defeat.'

Bolitho had left the ship at Portsmouth, but only after every man had been properly paid off and letters of credit had been sent to the dependants of her many dead. Then with hardly a word he had left for Falmouth.

As first lieutenant, Herrick had stayed to hand over the ship to the dockyard, then he too had gone to his home in Kent.

Bolitho's letter had arrived within a few days, and Herrick had set off for Cornwall, hardly knowing if the invitation was genuine or just common courtesy.

But as he looked at the big, shadowed room and Bolitho's slim figure before the fire, he began to understand for the first time. Bolitho was now completely alone.

He said quietly, `I am sorry. I had no idea.'

Bolitho said, `My father died three months ago.' He gave a short, bitter smile. `Hugh went a few months after the Saintes battle. He was killed by accident. A runaway horse, I believe.'

Herrick stared at him. `How do you know all this?'

Bolitho opened a cupboard and then laid a sword on the table. In the firelight it gleamed with sudden brightness which hid the tarnished gilt and well-worn scabbard.

Bolitho said quietly, `Hugh sent this to my father. To give it back to me.' He turned back to the fire. `He wrote that he considered it to be mine by right.'

The door opened, and the fair-haired woman entered with a tray of hot punch.

Bolitho smiled. `Thank you, Mrs. Ferguson. We will dine directly.'

As the door closed again Bolitho saw the question on Herrick's face. `Yes, that is the wife of Ferguson, my clerk. He works for me, too.'

Herrick nodded and took one of the goblets, `He lost an arm at the Saintes. I remember.'

Bolitho poured himself a drink and held it to the firelight. `His wife did not die after all. And Ferguson is quite a hero in the town!' It seemed to amuse him, and Herrick saw the old smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Bolitho added, `Now the war is done, Thomas. You and I are on the beach. I wonder what lies ahead for those like us?'

Herrick replied thoughtfully, `This peace will not last.' He lifted his goblet. `To old friends, sir!' He paused, seeing the memories all over again. `To the ship, bless her!'

Bolitho drained his drink and gripped his hands behind him. Even that unconscious gesture stabbed Herrick's memory like a knife. The screaming shot, the crash and thunder of battle, with Bolitho pacing the quarterdeck like a man deep in thought.

`And you, sir? What will you do now?'

Bolitho shrugged. 'I have the chance to become a landowner, I suppose. And a magistrate like my father.' He looked up at the portraits. `But I can wait. For another ship.'

The door opened, and a man in a green apron asked, 'Will you be requiring any more wine from the cellar, Captain?'

Herrick jumped to his feet. `My God! Allday!'

Allday grinned self-consciously. `Aye, Mr. Herrick. 'Tis me right enough!'

Bolitho looked from one to the other. `After Stockdale died, Allday here said he wanted to change his mind about leaving the Service. He smiled sadly. `So if the chance comes we will go back to sea together.'

Bolitho picked up the sword and held it in both hands. Over his shoulder he added quietly, `When that times comes I will want a good first lieutenant, Thomas.' He turned and looked straight into Herrick's eyes.

Herrick felt the warmth flooding back through his body, sweeping away the doubt and the sense of loss. He raised his goblet. `It is not far to Kent, sir. I'll be ready when you give me the word!'

Bolitho turned his face away and watched the snow whipping across the windows. For a while longer he looked at the grey sky and scudding clouds, and imagined he could hear the wind whining through shrouds and taut rigging, with the hiss of thrown spray rising above the lee bulwark.

Then he faced his friend and said firmly, `Come, Thomas, there is much to talk about!'

Allday watched them go into the dining room, and then with a quiet smile he placed the sword carefully back in the cupboard.

End






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