Alexander Kent

Stand into Danger

(Bolitho – 4)

Far away where sky met sea

A majestic figure grew,

Pushed along by Royal decree

Her aggressive pennants flew.

Blazing red, dark plumes of grey,

Destruction overall,

As shot and grape found its way

Into a human wall.

From A Mariner’s Tale

by Daniel Byrne

Welcome Aboard

RICHARD BOLITHO thrust some coins into the hand of the man who had carried his sea-chest to the jetty and shivered in the damp air. It was halfway through the forenoon, and yet much of the land and the sprawling houses of Plymouth were hidden in drifting mist. No wind at all to speak of, so that the mist made everything look eerie and dismal.

Bolitho squared his shoulders and stared across the swirling water of the Hamoaze. As he did so he felt the unfamiliar touch of his lieutenant’s uniform which, like everything in his sea-chest, was new: the white lapels of his coat, the cocked hat set squarely across his black hair. Even his breeches and shoes had come from the same shop in Falmouth, in his own county just across the river, from the tailor whose family had been making clothing for sea officers since anyone could remember.

It should be his proudest moment. All he had worked and hoped for. That first, seemingly impossible step from midshipman’s berth to wardroom, to become a King’s officer.

He tugged his hat more firmly across his forehead as if to make himself believe it. It was his proudest moment.

“Be you joinin’ th’ Destiny, zur?”

Bolitho saw that the man who had carried the chest was still beside him. In the dull light he looked poor and ragged, but there was no mistaking what he had once been: a seaman.

Bolitho said, “Yes, she’s lying out there somewhere.”

The man followed his glance across the water, his eyes faraway.

“Fine frigate, zur. Only three years old, she be.” He nodded sadly. “She’s bin fittin’ out for months. Some say for a long voyage.”

Bolitho thought of this man and all the hundreds like him who roamed the shorelines and harbours looking for work, yearning for the sea which they’d once cursed and damned with the best of them.

But this was February 1774, and to all accounts England had been at peace for years. Wars still erupted around the world, of course, but always in the name of trade or self-preservation. Only the old enemies remained the same, content to bide their time, to seek out the weakness which might one day be exploited.

Ships and men, once worth their weight in gold, were cast aside. The vessels to rot, the seamen, like this ragged figure with all the fingers missing from one hand and a scar on his cheek as deep as a knife, left without the means to live.

Bolitho asked, “What were you in?”

Astonishingly, the man seemed to expand and straighten his back as he answered, “Th’ Torbay, zur. Cap’n Keppel.” Just as quickly he slumped down again. “Any chance of a berth in your ship, zur?”

Bolitho shook his head. “I’m new. I don’t know the state aboard Destiny as yet.”

The man sighed. “I’ll call ’e a boat then, zur.”

He put his good hand in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. There was an answering clatter of oars in the mist and very slowly a waterman’s boat nudged towards the jetty.

Bolitho called, “Destiny, if you please!”

Then he turned to give some more coins to his ragged companion, but he had vanished into the mist. Like a ghost. Gone perhaps to join all the others.

Bolitho clambered into the boat and drew his new cloak around him, his sword gripped between his legs. The waiting was done. It was no longer the day after tomorrow and then tomorrow. It was now.

The boat dipped and gurgled in a cross-current, the oarsman watching Bolitho with little enthusiasm. Another young luff going to make some poor jack’s life hell, he thought. He wondered if the young officer with the grave features and black hair tied to the nape of his neck was so new he would not know the proper waterman’s fare. But then again, this one had a West Country touch in his voice, and even if he was a ‘foreigner’ from across the border in Cornwall, he would not be fooled.

Bolitho went over all that he had discovered about his new ship. Three years old, the ragged man had said. He would know. All Plymouth probably pondered over the care which was being taken to equip and man a frigate in these hard times.

Twenty-eight guns, fast and agile, Destiny was what most young officers dreamed of. In time of war, free of the fleet’s apron strings, swifter than any larger vessel, and more heavily armed than anything smaller, a frigate was a force to be reckoned with. Better hopes of promotion, too, and if you were lucky enough ever to reach the lofty peak of command, so too would a frigate offer the chance of action and prize-money.

Bolitho thought of his last ship, the seventy-four-gun Gorgon. Huge, slow-moving, a teeming world of people, miles of rigging, vast spans of canvas, and the spars to carry it. It was also a schoolroom, where the young midshipmen learned how to control and sustain their unwieldy charge, and they learned the hard way.

Bolitho looked up as the waterman said, “Should be seeing her about now, sir.”

Bolitho peered ahead, glad of the interruption to his thoughts. As his mother had said when he had left her in the big grey house at Falmouth, “Put it behind you, Dick. You cannot bring him back. So take care of yourself now. The sea is no place for the unwary.”

The mist darkened and edged aside as the anchored ship loomed into view. The boat was approaching her starboard bow and past the long tapering jib-boom. Like Bolitho’s new uniform on the wet jetty, the Destiny seemed to shine through the drifting murk.

From her lithe black and buff hull to her three mastheads she was a thoroughbred. All her shrouds and standing rigging were freshly blacked down, her yards crossed, and each sail neatly furled to match its neighbour.

Bolitho raised his eyes to the figurehead as it reached out as if to greet him. It was the most beautiful one he had ever seen. A bare-breasted girl with her out-thrust arm pointing to the next horizon. In her hand she held the victor’s crown of laurels. Only the laurels and her unwavering blue stare had been inserted to break her white purity.

The waterman said between pulls, “They say that the woodcarver used his young bride to copy for that, sir.” He showed his teeth in what might have been a grin. “I reckon he had to fight a few away from her! ”

Bolitho watched the frigate slipping past the boat, the occasional activity on her nearest gangway and high above the deck.

She was a beautiful ship. He was lucky.

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