In Gallant Company
(Bolitho – 5)
For Winifred with love
Our foe was no skulk in his ship I tell you,… His was
the surly English pluck, and there is no tougher or truer,
and never was, and never will be.
1. Show of Strength
The stiff offshore wind, which had backed slightly to the northwest during the day, swept across New York 's naval anchorage, bringing no release from the chilling cold and the threat of more snow.
Tugging heavily at her anchor cables, His Britannic Majesty's Ship Trojan of eighty guns might appear to a landsman's unpractised eye as indifferent to both wind and water. But to the men who continued with their work about her decks, or high above them on the slippery yards and rigging, her swaying motion made her anything but that.
It was March 1777, but to Lieutenant Richard Bolitho, officer of the afternoon watch, it felt like midwinter. It will be dark early, he thought, and the ship's boats would have to be checked, their moorings doubly secured before night closed in completely.
He shivered, not so much because of the cold, but because he knew there would be little relief from it once he was allowed to go below. For despite her massive size and armament, the Trojan, a two-decked ship of the line, whose complement of six hundred and fifty officers, seamen and marines lived out their lives within her fat hull, had no more than the galley fires and bodywarmth to sustain them, no matter what the elements might do.
Bolitho raised his telescope and trained it towards the fading waterfront. As the lens passed over other anchored ships of the line, frigates and the general clutter of small supporting craft he found time to wonder at the change. It had been just last summer when Trojan, in company with a great fleet of one hundred and thirty ships, had anchored here, off Staten Island. After the shock of the actual revolution within the American colonies, the occupation of New York and Philadelphia with such a show of force had seemed to those involved as a start on the way back, a compromise.
It had been such a simple and leisurely affair at the time. After phasing his troops under canvas along the green shoreline of Staten Island, General Howe, with a token force of infantry, had gone ashore to take possession. All the preparations by the Continentals and local militia had come to nothing, and even the Staten Island force of four hundred men, who had been commanded by General Washington to defend the redoubts at all costs, had grounded their muskets and obligingly sworn allegiance to the Crown.
Bolatlao lowered the glass as it blurred in drifting snow. It was hard to recall the green island and crowds of onlookers, the Loyalists cheering, the rest watching in grim silence, Now all the colours were in shades of grey. The land, the tossing water, even the ships seemed to have lost their brightness in the persistent and lingering winter,
Ile took a few paces this way and that across Trojan's spacious quarterdeck, his shoes slipping on the planking, his damp clothing tugging at him in the wind. He had been in the ship for two years. It was beginning to feel a lifetime. Like manly others throughout the fleet, he had felt mixed feelings at the news of the revolution. Surprise and shock. Sympathy and then anger. And above all the sense of helplessness.
The revolution, which had begun as a mixture of individual ideals, had soon developed into something real and challenging. The war was like nothing they had known before. Big ships of the line like Trojan moved ponderously from one inflamed incident to another, and were well able to cope with anything which was careless enough to stray under their massive broad sides. But the real war was one of communications and supply, of small, fast vessels, sloops, brigs and schooners. And throughout the long winter months, while the overworked ships of the inshore squadrons had patrolled and probed some fifteen hundred miles of coastline, the growing strength of the Continentals had been further aided by Britain 's old enemy, France. Not openly as yet, but it would not be long before the many French privateers which hunted from the Canadian border to the Caribbean showed their true colours. After that, Spain too would be a quick if unwilling ally. Her trade routes from the Spanish Main were perhaps the longest of all, and with little love for England anyway, she would likely take the easiest course.
All this and more Bolitho had heard and discussed over and over again until he was sick of it. Whatever the news, good or bad, the Trojan's role seemed to be getting smaller. Like a rock she remained here in harbour for weeks on end, her company resentful, the officers hoping for a chance to leave her and find their fortunes in swifter, more independent ships.
Bolitho thought of his last ship, the twenty-eight-gun frigate Destiny. Even as her junior lieutenant, and barely used to the sea-change from midshipman's berth to wardroom, he had found excitement and satisfaction beyond belief.
He stamped his feet on the wet planks, seeing the watchkeepers at the opposite side jerk round with alarm. Now he was fourth lieutenant of this great, anchored mammoth, and looked like remaining so.
Trojan would be better off in the Channel Fleet, he thought. Manoeuvres and showing the flag to the watchful French, and whenever possible slipping ashore to Plymouth or Portsmouth to meet old friends.
Bolitho turned as familiar footsteps crossed the deck from the poop. It was Cairns, the first lieutenant, who like most of the others had been aboard since the ship had recommissioned in 1775 after being laid up in Bristol where she had originally been built.
Cairns was tall, lean and very self-contained. If he too was pining over the next step in his career, a command of his own perhaps, he never showed it. He rarely smiled, but nevertheless was a man of great charm. Bolitho both liked and respected him, and often wondered what he thought of the captain.
Cairns paused, biting his lower lip, as he peered up at the towering criss-cross of shrouds and running rigging. Thinly coated with clinging snow, the yards looked like the branches of gaunt pines.
He said, 'The captain will be coming off soon. I'll be on call, so keep a weather-eye open.'
Bolitho nodded, gauging the moment. Cairns was twenty-eight, while he was not yet twenty-one. But the span between first and fourth lieutenant was still the greater.
He asked casually, `Any news of our captain's mission ashore, sir?'
Cairns seemed absorbed. 'Get those topmen down, Dick. They'll be too frozen to turn-to if the weather breaks. Pass the
word for the cook to break out some hot soup.' He grimaced. 'That should please the miserly bugger.' He looked at Bolitho, ' Mission?,
'Well, I thought we might be getting orders.' He shrugged. 'Or something.'
'He has been with the commander-in-chief certainly. But I doubt we'll hear anything stronger than the need for vigilance and an eye to duty!'
'I see.' Bolitho looked away, fie was never sure when Cairns was being completely serious.
Cairns tugged his coat around his throat. 'Carry on, Mr Bolitho.'
They touched their hats to each other, the informality laid aside for the moment.
Bolitho called, 'Midshipman of the watch!' He saw one of the drooping figures break away from the shelter of the hammock nettings and bound towards him.