Alexander Kent


(Bolitho – 11)

The thundering line of battle stands,

And in the air Death moans and sings:

But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,

And Night shall fold him in strong wings.



The frigate Harvester, nine days outward bound from Spithead, turned easily into the gentle offshore breeze and dropped anchor, the echoes of her gun salute still reverberating and grumbling around the towering wall of Gibraltar 's unchanging Rock. Her young captain let his eye rest a moment longer on the busy activity below the quarterdeck as his men threw themselves into the work of swaying out boats, urged on by sharp commands and more than one cuff from an impatient petty officer. Entering harbour was always a tense moment, and the captain knew that he was not the only one aboard who was aware of the big ships of the line anchored nearby, the largest of which wore a vice-admiral's flag at the fore, and no doubt there were several telescopes already trained on his small command' ready to reprimand or criticise.

With a final glance he strode aft and crossed to the starboard side where a tall, solitary figure leaned against the hammock nettings.

`Shall I signal for a boat, sir? Or would one of mine be sufficient?'

Captain Richard Bolitho pulled himself from his thoughts and turned to face the other man.

'Thank you, Captain Leach, I will take yours. It will save time.' He imagined he saw a touch of relief in the man's eyes, and realised that it could not have been easy for so young and junior a captain, who had not yet attained the coveted post rank, to carry him from England as a passenger.

He relaxed slightly and added, 'You have a fine ship. We made a quick passage.' He shivered in spite of the earlymorning sunlight and saw Leach watching him with new interest. But what could he understand of Bolitho's feelings? While the frigate had beaten down the English Channel and round Brest, where once more the British squadrons rode out all weathers to watch over a blockaded French fleet, Bolitho's thoughts had reached far beyond the plunging bowsprit to this moment only. Down across the Bay, with its blustering winds and savage currents, and still further south until the coast of Portugal loomed like a blue mist far abeam. He had had plenty of time to think of what lay ahead, of his new command, and. all that she might come to mean to him. In his solitary walks on the frigate's spray-dashed quarterdeck he had been conscious,of his role as a mere passenger, and more than once had had to check himself from interfering in the running of

the ship.

Now, beneath the Rock's great shadow, he must push such thoughts out of his mind. He was no longer a frigate captain with all the independence, and dash that post entailed. Within minutes he would take command of a ship of the line, one of those which swung so calmly and so confidently above their reflections just two cables distant. He made himself look squarely at the -one which lay astern of the flagship. A two-decker, one of the seventy-four-gun ships which made up the backbone of England 's far-stretched squadrons. The frigate beneath his feet moved restlessly even within the calm waters of the anchorage, her tapered topmasts spiralling against the washed-out blue sky, her rigging humming as if from impatience at the very necessity of being near her heavier consorts. By comparison the two-decker looked squat and unmoving, her towering masts and yards, her double line of ports, adding to her appearance of ponderous power, around which the busy harbour craft scurried like so many water-beetles.

The other man watched the gig being rowed round to the entry port and saw Bolitho's coxswain standing beside a pile of personal luggage like a thickset dog guarding his master's most prized possessions.

He said, `You've a good man there, sir.'

Bolitho followed his glance and smiled. 'Allday has been with me since…: His mind went back over the years without effort, as if every thought and each memory was always lying in wait like a half-forgotten picture. He said abruptly, 'My first coxswain was killed at the Saintes in '82. Allday has been with me ever since.' Just a few words of explanation, yet how much more they meant to Bolitho, just as Allday's familiar shape was a constant reminder. Now the Saintes and the frigate Phalarope were eleven years in the past, and England was at war again.

Leach watched Bolitho's grave face and wondered. During the uneventful voyage from Spithead he had wanted to confide with him, but something had stopped him. He had brought plenty of other passengers to Gibraltar and usually they made a pleasant diversion in the daily routine. Officers for the garrison, couriers and replacements for men killed by accident or design in a war which was already spreading in every direction. But something in Bolitho's impassive, almost withdrawn manner had deterred him from close contact. He looked at him now with a mixture of interest and envy. Bolitho was a senior captain and about to take a step which with any luck at all would place him on the list for flag rank within a few years, maybe only months.

From what Bolitho had said he guessed him to be in his middle or late thirties. He was tall and surprisingly slim, and when he smiled his face became equally youthful. It was said that Bolitho had been away for several years between the wars in the Great South Sea and had come back half dead with fever. It was probably true, he decided. There were deep lines at the comers of his mouth, and beneath the even tan there was a certain fineness to the skin and cheekbones which betrayed such an illness. But the hair which was pulled back to the nape of his neck was black, without even a touch of grey, and the one lock which curled down above his right eye added to his appearance of controlled recklessness.

A lieutenant touched his hat. `Boat's ready, sir.'

Bolitho held out his hand. 'Well, goodbye for, the present, Leach. No doubt we will meet again directly.'

The frigate's captain smiled for the first time. 'I hope so, sir.' He snapped his fingers with sudden irritation. 'I almost forgotl There is a midshipman aboard who is also appointed to your ship. Will he go across with you?'

He spoke carelessly, as if he were discussing a piece of unwanted baggage, and Bolitho grinned in spite of his inner anxiety. 'We were all midshipmen once, Leach.' He nodded. 'He can come with me.'

Bolitho climbed down the ladder to the, entry port where the bosun's mates and marines were assembled to see him over the side. His boxes had already vanished, and Allday was waiting by the bulwark, his eyes watching Bolitho as he knuckled his forehead and reported, 'All stowed, Captain.'

Bolitho nodded. There was something very reassuring about Allday. He was no longer the lithe topman he had once been. He had filled out now, so that in his blue jacket and wide duck trousers he looked muscular and unbreakable, like a rock. But his eyes were still the same. Half thoughtful, half amused. Yes, it was good to have him here today.

Then Bolitho saw the midshipman. He got a quick impression of a pale, delicate face and a thin, gangling body which did not seem able to hold still. It was odd that he had not seen him before within the close world of the frigate, he thought.

As if reading his mind Leach said shortly, `He's been seasick for most of the voyage.'

Bolitho asked kindly, `What is your name, boy?'

The midshipman began, 'S-S-Seton, sir.' Then he lapsed into blushing silence.

Leach said unfeelingly, 'He stutters, too. I suppose we must take all kinds in times like these:

Bolitho hid a smile. 'Quite so.' He waited a moment and then added, 'Well, Mr. Seton, you go down into the

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