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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Bolitho studied his father's face and remembered himself as he had appeared in the mirror of the George Inn at Portsmouth. It was there in his father, as it was in the portraits along the walls. The same calm face and dark hair, the same slightly hooked nose. But his father had lost his old fire, and his hair was grey now, like that of a man much older.

His father stood up and walked to the fire. Over his shoulder he said gruffly, `You have not yet heard about your brother?'

Bolitho tensed. `No. I thought he was still at sea.'

`At sea?' The older man shook his head vaguely. `Of course, I kept it from you. I suppose I should have written to you, but in my heart I still hoped he might change his ways and nobody would have known about it."

Bolitho waited. His brother had always been the apple of his father's eye. When last he had seen him he had been a lieutenant in the Channel Fleet, the next in line for this house and for the family inheritance. Bolitho had never felt particularly close to Hugh, but put it down to a natural family jealousy. Now, he was not so sure.

`I had great hopes for Hugh.' His father was talking to the fire. To himself. `I am only glad his mother is not alive to know of what he became!'

`Is there something I can do?' Bolitho watched the shoulders quiver as his father sought to control his voice.

`Nothing. Hugh is no longer in the Navy. He got into debt gambling. He always had an eye for the tables, as I think you know. But he got into deep trouble, and to end it all he fought a duel with a brother officer, and killed him!'

Bolitho's mind began to clear. That explained the few servants, and the fact that over half the land belonging to the house had been sold to a local farmer.

`You covered his debts then?' He kept his voice calm. `I have some prize money if…'

The other man held up his hand. `That is not necessary. It was my fault for being so blind. I was stupid about that boy. I must pay for my misjudgement!' He seemed to become more weary. `He deserted the Navy, turned his back on it, even knowing how his act would hurt me. Now he has gone.'

Bolitho started. `Gone?’

'He went to America. I have not heard of him for two years, nor do I want to.' When he turned Bolitho saw the lie shining in his eyes. `Not content with bringing disgrace on the family name, he has done this thing. Betrayed his country!'

Bolitho thought of the chaos and death at the disaster of Philadelphia and answered slowly, `He may have been prevented from returning by the rebellion.'

`You know your brother, Richard. Do you really think it likely? He always had to be right, to hold the winning cards. No, I cannot see him pining away in a prison camp!'

The servant girl entered the room and bobbed in a clumsy curtsy. 'Beggin' pardon, zur. There's an officer to zee you.'

`That'll be Herrick, my third lieutenant,' said Bolitho hurriedly. `I asked him to take a glass with us. I'll tell him to go if you wish?'

His father stood up straight and flicked his coat into position again. `No, boy. Have him come in. I will not let my shame interfere with the real pride I have in my remaining son.’

Bolitho said gently, 'I am very sorry, Father. You must know that.'

`Thank you. Yes, I do know. And you were the one I thought would never make your way in the Navy. You were always the dreamer, the unpredictable one. I am afraid I neglected you for Hugh.' He sighed. `Now it is too late.' There was a step in the hallway and he said yvith sudden urgency, 'In case I never see you again, my boy, there is something you must have.' He swallowed. `I wanted Hugh to have it when he became a captain.' He reached into a cupboard and held out his sword. It was old and well tarnished, but Bolitho knew it was of greater value than steel and gilt.

He hesitated. `Your father's sword. You always wore it!'

James Bolitho nodded and turned it over carefully in his hands. `Yes, I always wore it. It was a good friend.' He held it out. `Take it. I want you to wear it for me!'

His father suddenly smiled. `Well then, let us greet your junior officer together, eh?'

When Herrick walked uncertainly into the wide room he saw only his smiling host and his new captain, one the living mould of the other.

Only Bolitho saw the pain in his father's eyes and was deeply moved.

It was strange how he had come to the house, as he had always done in the past, seeking comfort and advice. Yet he had mentioned nothing about the difficulties and danger of his new command, or the double-edged responsibility which hung over his head like an axe.

For once, he had been the one who was needed, and he was ashamed because he did not know the answer.

At dawn the following day the frigate Phalarope unfurled her sails and broke out her anchor. There were no cheers to speed her parting, but there were many tears and curses from the women and old men who watched from the jetties.

The air was keen and fresh, and as the yards creaked round and the ship heeled away from the land Bolitho stood aft by the taffrail, his glass moving slowly across the green sloping hills and the huddled town below.

He had his ship, and all but a full complement. With time the new men would soon be moulded into sailors, and given patience and understanding they might make their country proud of them.

St. Anthony's Light moved astern, the ancient beacon which was the returning sailor's first sight of home. Bolitho wondered when or if he would see it again. He thought too of his father, alone in the old house, alone with his memories and shattered hopes. He thought of the sword and all that it represented.

He turned away from the rail and stared down at one of the ship's boys, a mere infant of about twelve years old. The boy was weeping uncontrollably and waving vaguely at the land as it cruised away into the haze. Bolitho asked, `Do you know that I was your age when I first went to sea, boy?'

The lad rubbed his nose with a grubby fist and gazed at the captain with something like wonder.

Bolitho added, `You'll see England again. Never you fear!' He turned away quickly lest the boy should see the uncertainty in his eye.

By the wheel old Proby intoned, `South-west by South. Full and by, quartermaster.'

Then, as if to cut short the agony of sailing, he walked to the lee rail and spat into the sea.

3. BEEF FOR THE PURSER

Twenty days after weighing anchor the frigate Phalarope crossed the thirtieth parallel and heeled sickeningly to a blustering north-west gale. Falmouth lay three thousand miles astern, but the' wind with all its tricks and conning cruelties stayed resolutely with the ship.

As one bell struck briefly from the forecastle and the dull copper sun moved towards the horizon the frigate ploughed across each successive bank of white-crested rollers with neither care nor concern for the men who served her day by day, hour by hour. No sooner was one watch dismissed below than the boatswain's mates would run from hatch to hatch, their calls twittering, their voices hoarse in the thunder of canvas and the never ending hiss of spray.

`All hands! All hands! Shorten sail!'

Later, stiff and dazed from their dizzy climb aloft, the seamen would creep below, their bodies aching, their fingers stiff and bleeding from their fight with the rebellious canvas.

Now, the men off watch crouched in the semi-darkness of the berth deck groping for handholds and listening to the crash of water against the hull even as they tried to finish their evening meal. From the deck beams the swinging lanterns threw strange shadows across their bowed heads, picking out individual faces and actions like scenes from a partially cleaned oil painting.

Below the sealed hatches the air was thick with smells. That of bilge water mixing with sweat and the sour odour of seasickness, and the whole area was filled with sound as the ship fought her own battle with the Atlantic. The steady crash of waves followed by the jubilant surge of water along the deck above, the continuous groaning of timbers and the humming of taut stays, all defied the men to sleep and relax even for a moment.

John Allday sat astride one of the long, scrubbed benches and gnawed carefully at a tough piece of salt beef. Between his strong teeth it felt like leather, but he made himself eat it, and closed his mind to the rancid cask from which it had come. The deep cut on his cheek where Brock's cane had found its mark had healed in an ugly scar, and as his jaws moved steadily on the meat he could feel the skin tightening painfully where blown salt and cold winds had drawn the edges together like crude stitching.

Across the table, and watching him with an unwinking stare, sat Pochin, a giant seaman with shoulders like a cliff. He said at last, `You've settled in right enough, mate.' He smiled bleakly. `All that squit when you was pressed came to nothin'!'

Allday threw a meat bone on to his tin plate and wiped his fingers on a piece of hemp. He regarded the other man with his steady, calm eyes for several seconds and then replied, `I can wait.'

Pochin glared through the gloom, his head cocked to listen to some of the men retching. ` Lot of bloody women!' -He looked back at Allday. `I was forgettin', you are an old hand at this:

Allday shrugged and looked down at his palms. `You never get rid of the tar, do you?' He leaned back against the timbers and sighed. `My last ship was the Resolution, seventy-four. I was a foretopman.' He allowed his eyes to close. `A good enough ship. We paid off just a few months before the American Revolution, and I was clean away before the press could lay a finger on me!'

An old, grey-haired man with washed-out blue eyes• said huskily, `Was you really a shepherd like you told 'em?'

Allday nodded. `That, and other things. I had to stay out in the open. To keep away from the towns. I would choke to death under a roof!' He gave a small smile. `Just an occasional run into Falmouth was enough for me. Just enough for a woman, and a glass or two!'

The old seaman, Strachan, pursed his lips and rocked against the table as the ship heeled steeply and sent the plates skittering across the deck. `It sounds like a fair life, mate.' He seemed neither wistful nor envious. It was just a statement. Old Ben Strachan had been in the Navy for forty years, since he had first trod deck as a powder-monkey. Life ashore was a mystery to him, and in his regimented world appeared even more dangerous than the privations afloat.

Allday looked round as a hunched figure rose over the table's edge and threw himself across his arms amongst the litter of food. Bryan Ferguson had been in a continuous torment of seasickness and fear from the very moment Vibart's figure had appeared on that coast road. In Falmouth he had been a clerk working at a local boatyard. Physically he was not a strong man, and now in the swinging lantern's feeble light his face looked as gray as death itself.

His thin body was bruised in many places, both from falling against unfamiliar shipboard objects and not least from the angry canes of the bosun's mates and petty officers as the latter sought to drive the new men into the mysteries of seamanship and sail drill.

Day after day it had continued. Harried and chased -from one part of the ship to the next with neither let-up nor mercy. Quivering with terror Ferguson had dragged his way up the swooping shrouds and out along the yards, until he could see the creaming water leaping below him as if to claw at his very feet. The first time he had clung sobbing to the mast, incapable of either moving out along the yard or even down towards the safety of the deck.





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