Authors: Richard Woodman
Mariner's Library Fiction Classics
Voyage: A Novel of 1896
The Celtic Ring
The Shadow in the Sands
The Darkening Sea
The Nathaniel Drinkwater Novels
(in chronological order):
An Eye of the Fleet
A King's Cutter
A Brig of War
The Bomb Vessel
In Distant Waters
A Private Revenge
Under False Colours
The Flying Squadron
Beneath the Aurora
The Shadow of the Eagle
This edition published 2001
by Sheridan House Inc.
145 Palisade Street
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
Copyright Â© 1985 by Richard Woodman
First published in Great Britain 1985 by
John Murray (Publishers) Ltd
First published in the United States of America 1987
By Walker and Co. under the title
Decision at Trafalgar
All rights reserved. No part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission in writing of Sheridan House.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Woodman, Richard, 1944-
1805: a Nathaniel Drinkwater novel/Richard Woodman
p.cm.â(Mariner's library fiction classics)
ISBN 13:Â Â 978-1-57409-101-4 (pbk : alk. paper)
1. Drinkwater, Nathaniel (Fictitious character)âFiction.
2. Great BritainâHistory, Navalâ19
3. Trafalgar, Battle of, 1805âFiction.
4. Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1815âFiction.
I. Title. II. Series
PR6073.0617 A17 2001
Printed in the United States of America
For Liz and Brian Bell
PART ONE: BLOCKADE
1Â Â Â Â The Club-Haul
2Â Â Â Â The
3Â Â Â Â The Spy Master
4Â Â Â Â Foolish Virgins
5Â Â Â Â Ruse de Guerre
6Â Â Â Â The Secret Agent
7Â Â Â Â The Army of the Coasts of the Ocean
8Â Â Â Â Stalemate
9Â Â Â Â Orders
PART TWO: BREAK-OUT
10Â Â Â Â The Rochefort Squadron
11Â Â Â Â The Snowstorm
12Â Â Â Â The Look-out Frigate
13Â Â Â Â Calder's Action
14Â Â Â Â The Fog of War
15Â Â Â Â Nelson
16Â Â Â Â Tarifa
PART THREE: BATTLE
17Â Â Â Â Santhonax
18Â Â Â Â The Spectre of Nelson
19Â Â Â Â Villeneuve
20Â Â Â Â Nelson's Watch-Dogs
21Â Â Â Â Trafalgar
22Â Â Â Â Surrender and Storm
23Â Â Â Â Gibraltar
24Â Â Â Â The Martyr of Rennes
âLet us be master of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.'
NAPOLEON TO ADMIRAL LATOUCHE-TRÃVILLE
âI do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I only say they will not come by sea.'
EARL ST VINCENT TO THE HOUSE OF LORDS
Midshipman Frey threw open the door of the captain's cabin with a precipitate lack of formality. The only reply to his urgent summons from the darkness within was the continuous creaking of the frigate as she laboured in the heavy sea.
âSir! For God's sake wake up, sir!'
The ship staggered as a huge wave broke against her weather bow and sluiced over the rail into her waist. It found its way below by a hundred different routes. Outside the swinging door the marine sentry swore, fighting the impossibility of remaining upright. Frey stumbled against the leg of a chair overset by the violence of the ship's movement. He found the cabin suddenly illuminated as a surge of white water hissed up under the counter and reflected the pale moonlight through the stern windows. Mullender, the captain's steward, would catch it for not dropping the sashes if one of the windows was stove in, the boy thought irrelevantly as he shoved the chair aside and groped to starboard where, over the aftermost 18-pounder gun, the captain's cot swung.
Frey hesitated. Pale in the gloom, Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater's legs stuck incongruously out of the cot. Still in breeches and stockings they seemed appendages not consonant with the dignity of a post-captain in the Royal Navy. Frey reached out nervously then drew back hurriedly as the legs began to flail of their own accord, responding to the squealing of the pipes at the hatchways and the sudden cry for all hands taken up by the sentries at their unstable posts about the ship.
âEh? What the devil is it? Is that you, Mr Frey?'
The cot ceased its jumping and Captain Drinkwater's face, haggard with fatigue, peered at the midshipman. âWhy was I not called before?'
âI had been calling you for some timeÂ .Â .Â .'
âWhat's amiss?' The captain's tone was sharp.
âMr Quilhampton's respectsÂ .Â .Â .'
âWhat is it?'
âWe've to tack, sir. Immediately, sir. Mr Quilhampton apprehends we are embayed!'
âGod's bones!' The sleep drained from Drinkwater's face with the dawning of comprehension. Beyond the bulkhead the ship had come to urgent life with the dull thunder of a hundred pairs of feet being driven on deck by the bosun's mates.
âMy hat and cloak, Mr Frey. On deck at once, d'you hear me!' Drinkwater forced his feet into his buckled shoes and tugged on his coat, stumbling to leeward as the frigate lurched again. He shoved past the midshipman and swore as his shin connected with the overset chair-leg. He swore a second time as he bumped into the marine sentry sliding across the desk in an attempt to avoid part of the larboard watch tumbling up from the berth-deck below via the after-ladder.
By the time Frey had collected the captain's hat and cloak he emerged onto an almost deserted gun-deck. The purser's dips glimmered, casting dull gleams on the fat, black breeches of the double-lashed 18-pounder cannon and the bright-work on the stanchions. A few round shot remained in the garlands, but most had been dislodged and rolled down to leeward where they rumbled up and down amid a dark swirl of water. Mr Frey paused in the creaking emptiness of the berth-deck.
âAll hands means you too, younker. Get your arse on deck instanter, God damn you!'
Frey doubled up the ladder with a blaspheming Lieutenant Rogers at his heels. The first lieutenant had only roused himself from a drunken slumber with the greatest difficulty. He did not like being shown up in front of the whole ship's company and Frey's belated appearance served to cover his tardiness.
The first thing Drinkwater noticed when he reached the upper deck was the strength of the wind. He had gone below less than two hours earlier with the ship riding out a south-westerly gale under easy sail on the larboard tack. Hill, the sailing master, had observed their latitude earlier as being ten leagues south of the Lizard and the ship was holding a course of west-north-west. Even allowing for considerable leeway Drinkwater could not see that Mr Quilhampton's fears were justified. He had left orders to be called at eight bells when, with both watches, they could tack to the southward and hope to come up with the main body of the Channel Fleet under Admiral Cornwallis somewhere west of Ushant.
Quilhampton's face was suddenly in front of him. The strain of
anxiety was plain even in the moonlight; clear too was the relief at Drinkwater's appearance.
âWell, Mr Q?' Drinkwater shouted at the dripping figure.
âSir, a few minutes ago the scud cleared completely. I'm damned certain I saw land to leewardÂ .Â .Â .Â or something confounded like it.'
âHave you seen the twin lights of the Lizard?' Drinkwater shouted, a worm of uncertainty uncoiling itself in his belly.
âHalf an hour ago we couldn't see much, sir. Heavy, driving rainÂ .Â .Â .'
âThen it cleared like this?'
âAye, sir, and the wind veered a point or twoÂ .Â .Â .'
It was on Drinkwater's tongue to ask why Quilhampton had not called him, but it was not the moment to remonstrate. He crossed quickly to the binnacle, aware by the grunts of the helmsmen that they were having the devil of a time holding the frigate on course. A glance confirmed his fears. The veering wind had cast the ship's head to the north-west and if that latitude was in error he did not dare contemplate further.
âThank you, Mr Frey.' He flung the boat-cloak over his shoulder and very nearly lost it in the violence of the wind. The scream of air rushing through the rigging had a diabolical quality that Drinkwater did not ever remember hearing before in a quarter-century of sea-service. He looked aloft. Both the fore and main topsails were hard-reefed and a small triangle of a spitfire staysail strained above the fo'c's'le. Even so the ship was over-canvased, almost on her beam ends as spume tore over her deck stinging the eyes and causing the cheeks to ache painfully.
âLook, sir! Look!'
Quilhampton's arm pointed urgently as he fought to retain his footing on the canting deck. Drinkwater slithered to the lee rail as the look-out took up the cry.
âLand! Land! Land on the lee bow!'
Rogers cannoned into him. âShe'll never stay in this sea, sir!'
Drinkwater smelt the rum on his stale breath, but agreed with him. âAye, Sam, and there's no room to wear.' He paused, gathered his breath and shouted his next order so there could be no mistake. âWe must club-haul!'
âAmen to that, Mr Rogers,' Drinkwater said sarcastically. âNow, Mr Q. D'you get the mizen topmen and the gunners below to rouse out the top cable in the starboard tier. Open the port by number nine
gun and haul it forward outside all. Clap it on the starboard sheet-anchor. Ah, Mr Gorton,' Drinkwater addressed the second lieutenant who had come up with the master. âMr Gorton, you on the fo'c's'le with the bosun. Get Q's cable made fast and the anchor cleared away. I shall rely upon you to let the anchor go when I give the word.' Gorton turned away with Quilhampton and both officers hurried off.
âI hope your confidence ain't misplaced, sir.' Rogers stared after the figures of the two young men.
âBoth demonstrated their resource in the Greenland Sea, Sam. Besides, I want you amidships to pass my orders in case they ain't heard.' Drinkwater refused to be drawn by Roger's touchiness respecting his two juniors. For all his obvious disabilities Drinkwater had dragged Lieutenant Rogers off the poop of an ancient bomb-vessel and placed him on the quarterdeck of one of the finest frigates in the service, so he had little cause to complain of partiality. âSee that the men are at their stations and all ropes will run clear.' That at least was something Rogers would do superbly and with a deal of invective to spur the men's endeavours.
âWell, Mr Hill?'
âI've told two of my mates off into the hold to sound the well and Meggs is mustering a party at the pumps. If you open number nine port she'll be taking water all the while.'
âThat,' replied Drinkwater shouting, âis a risk we'll have to take.'
There was little either captain or master could do until the preparations were completed. The ship was rushing through the water at a speed that, under other circumstances, they would have been proud of.
âIs it Mount's Bay, d'you think?' Hill's concern was clear. He, too, was worried about that latitude. âWe haven't sighted the Lizard lights, sir.'
âNo.' Drinkwater hauled himself gingerly into the leeward mizen rigging and felt the wind catch his body as a thing of no substance. He clung on grimly and stared out to starboard. The thin veil of cloud which showed the gibbous moon nearly at the full was sufficient to extend a pale light upon the waves as the wind tore their breaking crests to shreds and sent the spume downwind like buckshot. With the greatest difficulty he made out what might have been the grey line of a cliff out on the starboard beam. He could only estimate its distance with difficulty. Perhaps a mile, perhaps not so much.
Then the moon sailed into a clear patch of sky. It was suddenly very bright and what Drinkwater saw caused his mouth to go dry.
A point or two on their starboard bow, right in their track as they sagged to leeward, rose a huge grey pinnacle of rock. In the moonlight its crags and fissures stood out starkly, and at its feet the breakers pounded white. But in the brief interval in the cloud Drinkwater became aware of something else. Atop the rock, perched upon its highest crag, a buttress and wall reared sheer from the cliff. Immediately he knew their position and that the danger to the ship and her company was increased a hundredfold. For beneath the ancient abbey on St Michael's Mount, stretching round onto their windward bow, the breakers pounded white upon the Mountamopus shoal.
There are few periods of anxiety greater in their intensity than that of a commander whose ship is running into peril, waiting for his people to complete their preparations. On the one hand experience and judgement caution him not to attempt a manoeuvre until everything is ready; upon the other instinct cries out to be released into immediate action. Yet, as the sweat prickled between his shoulder blades, Drinkwater knew that to act hastily was to court disaster. If the ship failed in stays there would be no second chance. It was useless to speculate upon the erroneous navigation that had brought them to this point, or why Rogers stank of rum, or, indeed, whether the two were connected. All these thoughts briefly crossed his mind in the enforced hiatus that is every captain's lot once orders have been given.
He looked again at the mount. The moon had disappeared now under a thick mantle of cloud, but they were close enough for its mass to loom over them, an insubstantial-looking lightening of the darkness to leeward, skirted about its base by the breakers that dashed spray half-way up its granite cliffs. This sudden proximity made his heart skip and he looked along the waist where men had been clustered in a dark group, hauling on the messenger that pulled the heavy cable along the ship's side. He could imagine their efforts being thwarted by the protruberances of the channels, the dead-eyes, the bead-blocks and all the other rigging details that at this precise moment seemed so much infernal nuisance. God, would they never finish?
The wind shrieked mercilessly and the frigate lay over so that he felt a terrible concern for that open gun-port into which, without a shadow of doubt, the sea would be sluicing continuously. He was unable to hear any noise above the storm and hoped that the pumping party were hard at it.
After the worry the word came aft and took him by surprise. It was Rogers, his face a pale blur of urgency abruptly illuminated as, again, the cloud was torn aside and the moon shone brightly. The light fell on the frigate, the sea and St Michael's Mount, sublime in its terrifying majesty.
âStations for stays!' He left Rogers to bawl the order through the speaking trumpet, took Hill by the elbow and forced him across the deck. âWe'll take the wheel, Mr Hill. It'll need the coolest heads tonight.' He sensed Hill's bewilderment as to what had gone wrong with the navigation.
Captain and sailing master took over the head-wheel, the displaced quartermasters moving across the deck to assist the gunners to haul the main-yard.
âEase down the helm, Mr Hill!' Drinkwater could feel the vibration of the hull as it rushed through the water, transmitted up from the rudder through the stock and tiller via the tiller ropes which creaked with the strain upon them. The ship lay over as she began to turn into the wind. A sea hit her larboard bow and threw her back a point. Drinkwater watched the angled compass card serenely illuminated by the yellow oil lamp, quietly obeying the timeless laws of natural science amid the elemental turmoil of the wind and sea.
Drinkwater raised his voice: âFo'c's'le there! Cut free the anchor! Let the cable run!'
Rogers took up the cry, bawling the first part forward and the latter part below to the party at the gun-port and by the cable-compressors. Drinkwater was dimly aware of a flurry of activity on the fo'c's'le and the hail that the anchor was gone. Behind him one of the two remaining helmsmen muttered, âShit or bust, mateys!'
âI hope it holds,' said Hill.
âIt'll hold, Mr Hill. 'Tis sand and rock. The rock may part the cable in a moment or two but she'll hold long enough.' He wished he possessed the confidence he expressed. He could feel the cable rumbling through the port, there was no doubt about that strange sensation coming up through the thin soles of his shoes. Rogers was crouched at the companionway and suddenly straightened.
âHalf cable veered, sir!'
Sixty fathoms of thirteen-inch hemp. Not enough, not yet. Drinkwater counted to three, then: âNip her!'
âI believe,' said Drinkwater to cover the extremity of his fear that in the next few seconds the anchor might break out or the cable part,' I believe at this point when staying, both the French and the Spanish
invoke God as a matter of routine.'
âNot such a bad idea, sir, beggin' yer pardon,' answered one of the helmsmen behind him.
And then the ship began to turn. For a moment he thought she might go the wrong way, for he had let go the lee anchor and that from a port well abaft the bow.
âHard over now, my ladsÂ .Â .Â .' He began to spin the wheel, aware that the anchor and cable were snubbing the ship round into the wind and thus assisting them. With the courses furled there were no tacks and sheets to raise and she was suddenly in the eye of the wind. There was a thunderous clap which sent a tremble through the hull as the fore-topsail came aback and juddered the whole foremast to its step in the kelson.
âMain-topsail haul!' Thank God for his crew, Drinkwater thought. They were only a few days out of Chatham and might have had a crew that were raw and unco-ordinated, but he had drafted the entire company from the sloop
, volunteers to a man. The main and mizen yards came round. So too did the ship, she was spinning like a top, her bow rising and her bowsprit stabbing at the very moon as she passed through the wind. The main-topsail filled with a crack that sent a second mighty tremor through the ship.
âWe've done it, by God!' yelled Rogers.
âCut, man! Cut the bloody cable!'
With the ship cast upon the other tack they had only a few seconds before the action of the anchor would pull the ship's head back again, but the backed fore-topsail was paying her off.
The foreyards came round and Rogers came aft and reported the cable cut. Drinkwater caught a glimpse of rock close astern, of the hollow troughs of a sea that was breaking in shallow water.
He handed the wheel back to the quartermasters. âKeep her free for a little while. We are not yet clear of the shoals.'
âAye, aye, sir.'
âEase the weather braces, Mr Rogers.'
They made the final adjustments and set her on a course clear of the Mountamopus as a dripping party came up from the gun-deck and reported the port closed. Relief was clear on every face. As if cheated in its intention, the storm swept another curtain of cloud across the face of the moon.
âYou may splice the main-brace, Mr Rogers, then pipe the watch below. My warmest thanks to the ship's company.'
Drinkwater turned away and headed for the companionway, his cabin and cot.
âThree cheers for the cap'n!'
âSilence there!' shouted Rogers, well knowing Drinkwater's distaste for any kind of show. But Drinkwater paused at the top of the companionway and made to raise his hat, only to find he had no hat to raise.
Squatting awkwardly to catch the light from the binnacle, Mr Frey made the routine entry on the log slate for the middle watch:
Westerly gales to storm. Ship club-hauled off St Michael's Mount, Course S.E. Lost sheet anchor and one cable
. He paused, then added on his own accord and without instruction:
The weather had abated somewhat by dawn, though the sea still ran high and there was a heavy swell. However, it was possible to relight the galley range and it was a more cheerful ship's company that set additional sail as the wind continued to moderate during the forenoon.
Drinkwater was on deck having slept undisturbed for four blessed hours. His mind felt refreshed although his limbs and, more acutely, his right shoulder which had been mangled by wounds, ached with fatigue. It was almost the hour of noon and he had sent down for his Hadley sextant with a view to assisting Hill and his party establish the ship's latitude. The master was still frustrated over his failure of the day before, for he could find no retrospective error in his working.
On waking Drinkwater had reflected upon the problem. He himself did not always observe the sun's altitude at noon. Hill was a more than usually competent master and had served with Drinkwater on the cutter
and the sloop
, proving his ability both in the confined waters of the Channel and North Sea, and also in the intricacies of Arctic navigation.
As Mullender gingerly lifted the teak box lid for Drinkwater to remove the instrument he caught the reproach in Hill's eyes.
âIt wants about four minutes to apparent noon, sir,' said Hill, adding with bitter emphasis, âby my reckoning.'
Drinkwater suppressed a smile. Poor Hill. His humiliation was public; there could be few on the ship that by now had not learned that their plight last night had been due to a total want of accuracy in the ship's navigation.
Hill assembled his party. Alongside him stood three of the ship's six midshipmen and one of the master's mates. Lieutenant Quilhampton
was also in attendance, using Drinkwater's old quadrant given him by the captain. Drinkwater remembered that Quilhampton and he had been discussing some detail the previous day and that the lieutenant had not taken a meridian altitude. Nor had Lieutenant Gorton. Drinkwater frowned and lifted his sextant, swinging the index and bringing the sun down to the horizon. The pale disc shone through a thin veil of high cloud and he adjusted the vernier screw so that it arced on the horizon. He peered briefly at the scale, replaced the sextant to his eye and noted that the sun continued to rise slowly as it moved towards its culmination.
âNearly on, sir,' remarked Hill who had been watching the rate of rise slow down. The line of officers swayed with the motion of the ship, a picture of concentration. The sun ceased to rise and âhung'. Its brief motionless suspension preceeded its descent into the period of postmeridian and Hill called, âOn, sir, right on!'
âVery well, Mr Hill, eight bells it is.'
By the binnacle the quartermaster turned the glass, the other master's mate hove the log and eight bells was called forward where the fo'c's'le bell was struck sharply. The marine sentinels were relieved, dinner was piped and a new day started on board His Britannic Majesty's 36-gun, 18-pounder, frigate
as she stood across the chops of the Channel in search of Admiral Cornwallis and the Channel Fleet.
âWell, Mr Hill,' Drinkwater straightened from his sextant, âwhat do we make it?' Drinkwater saw Hill bending over his quadrant, his lips muttering. A frown puckered his forehead, something seemed to be wrong with the master's instrument.
To avoid causing Hill embarrassment Drinkwater turned to the senior of the midshipmen: âMr Walmsley?'
Midshipman Lord Walmsley cast a sideways look at the master, swallowed and answered, âEr, thirty-nine degrees, twenty-six minutes, sir.'
âPoppy cock, Mr Walmsley. Mr Frey?'
âThirty-nine degrees six minutes, sir.' Drinkwater grunted. That was within a minute of his own observation.
âAnd a half, sir.'
The two master's mates and Midshipman the Honourable Alexander Glencross agreed within a couple of minutes. Drinkwater turned to Mr Hill: âWell, Mr Hill?'
Hill was frowning. âI have the same as Lord Walmsley, sir.' His
voice was puzzled and Drinkwater looked quickly at his lordship who had already moved his index arm and was lowering his instrument back into the box between his feet. It suddenly occurred to Drinkwater what had happened. Hill habitually muttered his altitude as he read it off the scale and Walmsley had persistently overheard and copied him. Yesterday, without Quilhampton and Drinkwater, Hill would have believed his own observation, apparently corroborated by Walmsley, and dismissed those of his juniors as inaccurate.
Drinkwater made a quick calculation. By adding the sum of the corrections for parallax, the sun's semi-diameter and refraction, then taking the result from a right angle to produce the true zenith distance, he was very close to their latitude. They were almost upon the equinox so the effect of the sun's declination was not very large and there would be a discrepancy in their latitudes of some twenty miles. Hill's altitude would put them twenty miles
, where they had thought they were yesterday.
âVery well, gentlemen. We will call it thirty-nine degrees, six and a half minutes.'
They bent over their tablets and a few minutes later Drinkwater called for their computed latitudes. Again only Walmsley disagreed.
âVery well. We shall make it forty-nine degrees, eleven minutes northÂ .Â .Â .Â Mr Hill, you appear to have an error in your instrument.'
Hill had already come to the same conclusion and was fiddling with his quadrant, blushing with shame and annoyance. Drinkwater stepped towards him.
âThere's no harm done, Mr Hill,' he said privately, reassuring the master.
âThank you, sir. But imagine the consequencesÂ .Â .Â .Â last night, sirÂ .Â .Â .Â we might have been cast ashore because I failed to checkÂ .Â .Â .'
âA great deal might happen
, Mr Hill,' broke in Drinkwater. âThere is too much hazard in the sea-life to worry about what did not happen. Now bend your best endeavours to checking the compass. We have an error there too, or I suspect you would have tumbled yesterday's inaccuracy yourself.'
The thought seemed to brighten Hill, to shift some of the blame and lighten the burden of his culpability. Drinkwater smiled and turned away, fastening his grey eyes on the senior midshipman.
âMr Walmsley,' he snapped, âI wish to address a few words to you, sir!'
Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater turned his chair and stared astern to where patches of sunlight danced upon the sea, alternating with the shadows of clouds. The surface of the sea heaved with the regularity of the Atlantic swells that rolled eastwards in the train of the storm. In the wake of the
herself half a dozen gulls and fulmars quartered the disturbed water in search of prey. Further off a gannet turned its gliding flight into an abrupt and predatory dive; but Drinkwater barely noticed these things, his mind was still full of the interview with Lord Walmsley.
Drinkwater had inherited Lord Walmsley together with most of the other midshipmen from his previous command. They had already been on board when he had hurriedly joined the
for her voyage escorting the Hull whaling fleet into the Arctic Ocean the previous summer. The officer responsible for selecting and patronising this coterie of âyoung gentlemen', Captain Sir James Palgrave, had been severely wounded in a duel and prevented from sailing in command of the
. Now Drinkwater rather wished Walmsley to the devil along with Sir James whose wound had mortified and who had paid with his life for the consequences of a foolish quarrel. Walmsley was an indolent youngster, spoiled, vastly over-confident and of a character strong enough to dominate the cockpit. Occasionally charming, there was no actual evil in him, though Drinkwater would have instinctively written
against his character had he been asked, if only because Lord Walmsley did not measure up to Drinkwater's exacting standards as an embryonic sea-officer. The fact was that his lordship did not give a twopenny damn about the naval service or, Drinkwater suspected, Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater himself. The captain was, after all, only in command of one of the many cruisers attached to the hastily raked-up collection of ships that made up the Downs Squadron. Lord Walmsley knew as well as Captain Drinkwater that, whatever hysteria was raised in the House of Commons about the menace of invasion across the Strait of Dover, it would not be Admiral Lord Keith's motley collection of vessels that stopped it but the might of the Channel Fleet under Admiral Cornwallis. Since Cornwallis's squadrons were bottling up the French in
Brest it seemed unlikely that Keith's ships would be achieving anything more glorious than commerce harrying and a general intimidation of the north coast of France. It was well known that Keith himself did not want his job and that he considered his own post to be that usurped by the upstart Nelson: holding the key to the Mediterranean outside Toulon.
Drinkwater sighed; when the Commander-in-Chief of the station made common knowledge of his dissatisfaction, was it any wonder that a young kill-buck like Walmsley should adopt an attitude of indifference? What was more, Walmsley had influence in high places. This depressing reflection irritated Drinkwater. He turned, rose from his chair and, taking a key from his waistcoat pocket, unlocked his wine case. He took out one of the two cut-glass goblets and lifted the decanter. The port glowed richly as he held the glass against the light from the stern windows. Resuming his seat he hitched both feet up on the settee that ran from quarter to quarter across the stern and narrowed his eyes. Damn Lord Walmsley! The young man was a souring influence among a group of reefers who, if they were not exactly brilliant, were not without merit. Midshipman Frey, for instance, just twelve years old, had already seen action off the coast of Greenland, was proving a great asset as a seaman and had also demonstrated his talents as an artist. Drinkwater was not averse to advancing the able, and had already seen both Mr Quilhampton and Mr Gorton get their commissions and placed them on his own quarterdeck as a mark of confidence in them, young though they were. Messrs Wickham and Dutfield were run-of-the-mill youngsters, willing and of a similar age. The Honourable Alexander Glencross was led by Lord Walmsley. The sixth midshipman was even younger than Frey, a freckled Scot named Gillespy forced upon him as a favour to James Quilhampton. In his pursuit of Mistress Catriona MacEwan, poor Quilhampton had sought to press his suit by promising the girl's aunt to find a place for the child of another sister. Little Gillespy was therefore being turned into a King's sea-officer to enhance Quilhampton's prospects as a suitable husband for the lovely Catriona. Drinkwater had had a berth for a midshipman and James had pleaded his own case so well that Drinkwater found himself unable to refuse his request.
âI believe Miss MacEwan is kindly diposed towards me, sir,' Quilhampton had said, âbut her festering aunt regards me as a poor catchÂ .Â .Â .' Drinkwater had seen poor Quilhampton's eyes fall to his iron hook which he wore in place of a left hand. So, from friendship
and pity, Drinkwater had agreed to the boy joining the ship. As for Gillespy, he had so far borne his part well, despite being constantly sea-sick since
left the Thames, and had spent the first half-dozen of his watches on deck lashed to a carronade slide. Drinkwater wondered what effect Walmsley and Glencross might have on such malleable clay.
âDamn 'em both!' he muttered; he had more important things to think about and could ill-afford his midshipmen such solicitude. They must take their chance like he had had to. Whatever his misgivings over the reefers, he was well served by his officers, Hill's error notwithstanding. That had been an unfortunate mistake and principally due to the badly fitted compass that was, in turn, a result of the chaotic state of the dockyards. They had found the error in the lubber's line small in itself, but enough to confuse their dead-reckoning as they steered down the Channel with a favourable easterly wind. That was an irony in itself after two months of the foulest weather for over a year; gales that had driven the Channel Fleet off station at Brest and into the lee of Torbay.
âDisaster', he muttered as he sipped the port, âis always a combination of small things going wrong simultaneouslyÂ .Â .Â .' And, by God, how close they had come to it in Mount's Bay! He consoled himself with the thought that no great harm had been done. Although he had lost an anchor and cable, the club-haul had not only welded his ship's company together but shown them what they were themselves capable of. âIt's an ill wind,' he murmured, then stopped, aware that he was talking to himself a great deal too much these days.
âNow I want a good, steady stroke.' Tregembo, captain's coxswain regarded his barge crew with a critical eye. He had hand-picked them himself but since Drinkwater had read himself in at
's entry the captain had not been out of the ship and this was to be the first time they took the big barge away. He knew most of them, the majority had formed the crew of
's gig, but they had never performed before under the eyes of an admiral or the entire Channel Fleet.
He grunted his satisfaction. âDon't 'ee let me down. No. Nor the cap'n, neither. Don't forget we owe him a lot, my lads,' he glowered round them as if to quell contradiction. There was a wry sucking of teeth and winking of eyes that signified recognition of Tregembo's partiality for the captain. âNo one but Cap'n Drinkwater 'd've got us out o' Mount's Bay an' all three masts still standingÂ .Â .Â .Â just you
buggers think on that. Now up on deck with 'ee all.' Tregembo followed the boat's crew up out of the gloom of the gun-deck.
Above, all was bustle and activity. Tregembo looked aft and grinned to himself. Captain Drinkwater stood where, in Tregembo's imagination, he always stood, at the windward hance, one foot on the slide of the little brass carronade that was one of a pair brought from the
. Ten minutes earlier the whole ship had been stirred by the hail of the masthead look-out who had sighted the topgallants of the main body of the Channel Fleet cruising on Cornwallis's rendezvous fifty miles west of Ushant. In the cabin below, Mullender was fussing over Drinkwater's brand new uniform coat with its single gleaming epaulette, transferred now to the right shoulder and denoting a post-captain of less than five years seniority. Mullender at last satisfied himself that no fluff adhered to the blue cloth with a final wipe of the piece of wool flag-bunting, and lifted the stained boat-cloak out of the sea-chest. He shook his head over it, considering its owner would benefit from a new one and cut a better dash before the admiral to boot, but, with a single glance out of the stern windows, considered the weather too fresh to risk a boat journey without it. Gold lace tarnished quickly and the protection of the cloak was essential. Drawing a sleeve over the knap on the cocked hat, Mullender left the cabin. He had been saving the dregs of four bottles to celebrate such a moment and retired to his pantry to indulge in the rare privilege of the captain's servant.