The Flag Captain
(Bolitho – 13)
The spirits of your fathers
Shall start from every wave;
For the deck it was their field of fame,
And ocean was their grave.
As six bells of the morning watch chimed out from the forecastle belfry, Captain Richard Bolitho walked from beneath the poop and paused momentarily beside the compass. A master’s mate who was standing close to the great double wheel said quickly, “Nor’ west by north, sir,” and then dropped his eyes as Bolitho glanced at him.
It was as if they could all sense his tension, he thought briefly, and although they might not understand its cause, wanted to break him from it.
He strode out on to the broad quarterdeck and crossed to the weather side. Around him, without looking, he could see his officers watching him, gauging his mood, waiting to begin this new day.
But the ship had been in continuous commission for eighteen months, and most of her company, excluding those killed by combat or injury at sea, were the same men who had sailed with him from Plymouth on an October morning in 1795. It was more than enough time for them to realise that he needed to be left alone for these first precious moments of each successive day.
The wet sea mist which had dogged them for most of the night while they had edged slowly up the Channel was still with them, thicker than ever. It swirled around the black criss-cross of shrouds and rigging and seemed to cling to the hull like dew. Beyond the nettings with their neatly stowed hammocks the sea was heaving in a deep offshore swell, but was quite unbroken in the low breeze. It was dull. The colour of lead.
Bolitho shivered slightly and clasped his hands behind him beneath his coat-tails and looked up, beyond the great braced yards to where a rear-admiral’s flag flapped wetly from the mizzen
masthead. It was hard to believe that up there somewhere the sky would be bright blue, warm and comforting, and on this May morning the sun should already be touching the approaching land. His land. Cornwall.
He turned and saw Keverne, the first lieutenant, watching him, waiting for the right moment.
Bolitho forced a smile. “Good morning, Mr Keverne. Not much of a welcome, it appears.”
Keverne relaxed slightly. “Good morning, sir. The wind remains sou’ west, but there is little of it.” He fidgeted with his coat buttons and added, “The master thinks we might anchor awhile. The mist should clear shortly.”
Bolitho glanced towards the short, rotund shape of the ship’s sailing master. His worn, heavy coat was buttoned up to his several chins, so that in the strange light he looked like a round blue ball. He was prematurely grey, even white haired, and had it tied at the nape of his neck in an old fashioned queue, giving it the appearance of a quaint powdered wig of a country squire.
“Well, Mr Partridge.” Bolitho tried again to put some warmth into his tone. “It is not like you to show such reluctance for the shore?”
Partridge shuffled his feet. “Never sailed into Falmouth afore, Cap’n. Not in a three-decker, that is.”
Bolitho shifted his gaze to the master’s mate. “Go forrard and see there are two good leadsmen in the chains. Make sure the leads are well armed with tallow. I want no false reports from them.”
The man hurried away without a word. Bolitho knew that like the others he would know what to do without being told, just as he was aware he was only giving himself more time to think and consider his motives.
Why should he not take the master’s advice and anchor? Was it recklessness or conceit which made him continue closer and closer towards the invisible shore?
Mournfully a leadsman’s voice echoed from forward. “By th’ mark seven!”
Above the deck the sails stirred restlessly and shone in the mist like oiled silk. Like everything else they were dripping with moisture, and hardly moved by the sluggish breeze from across the larboard quarter.
Falmouth. Perhaps that was the answer to his uncertainty and apprehension. For eighteen months they had been employed on blockade and later the watch over the southern approaches of Ireland. A French attempt to invade Ireland and start an uprising had been expected weekly, yet when it had come just five months ago the British blockade had been caught unready. The invasion attempt had failed more because of bad weather and the French fleet being scattered than any real pressure from the overworked patrols.
Feet clattered in the passageway beneath the poop and he knew it was the admiral’s servant going to attend his master in the great cabin.
It was strange how after all that had gone before they were coming here, to Falmouth, Bolitho’s home. It was as if fate had overrun everything which both duty and the Admiralty could muster.
“… an’ a quarter less seven!” The leadsman’s call was like a chant.
Bolitho began to pace slowly up and down the weather side, his chin lowered into his neckcloth.
Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Thelwall, whose flag flapped so limply from the masthead, had been aboard for over a year. Even when he had first hoisted his flag he had been a sick man. Old for his rank, and weighed down with the responsibility of an overworked squadron, his health had deteriorated rapidly in the fog and piercing cold of the last winter months. As his flag captain Bolitho had done what he could to ease the pressures on the tired,
wizened little admiral, and it had been painful to watch as day by day he fought to overcome the illness which was destroying him.
At last the ship was returning to England to replenish stores and make good other shortages. Sir Charles Thelwall had already despatched a sloop with his reports and needs, and also made known the state of his own illness.
“By th’ mark six!”
So when the ship dropped anchor the admiral would go ashore for the last time. It was unlikely he would live long enough to enjoy it.
And then there was the other twist of fate. Two days earlier, as the ship had tacked ponderously clear of the Wolf Rock in readiness for her passage up the Channel, they had been met by a fast moving brig with new orders for the admiral.
He had been in his cot at the time, racked by his dry, deadly cough which left his handkerchief spotted with blood after each convulsion, and had asked Bolitho to read the despatch which had been passed across in the brig’s jolly boat.
The orders stated in the briefest of terms that His Britannic Majesty’s Ship
Once the receipt of the orders had been acknowledged the brig had gone about with undue haste and sped away again. That was also strange. Two vessels meeting for the first time, and with the country in the grip of a war growing in fury and intensity, made even the smallest item of news valuable to the men who kept constant sea watch in all weathers and against any odds.
Even the brig’s approach had been cautious, but Bolitho had grown used to such treatment. For the