Alexander Kent


(Bolitho – 15)

It was ten of April morn by the chime;

As they drifted on their path,

There was silence deep as death

And the boldest held his breath

For a time.

From The Battle of the Baltic


1. We Happy Few

Admiral Sir George Beauchamp held his thin hands towards the blazing log fire and rubbed his palms slowly together to restore his circulation.

He was a small, stooped figure, made fragile by his heavy dress coat and gold epaulettes, but there was nothing frail about his mind or the sharpness of his eyes.

It had been a long, tiresome ride from London to Portsmouth, the journey worsened by autumn rain and deeply rutted roads. And Beauchamp's.one night's rest in the George Inn on Portsmouth Point had been ruined by a fierce gale which had changed the Solent into a raging mass of white horses and made all but the largest vessels scurry for shelter.

Beauchamp turned from the fire and surveyed his private room, the one he always used when he came to Portsmouth, like many important admirals before him. Now the gale had receded and the thick glass windows shone like metal in sunlight, a deception, because beyond the stout walls the air was chilled, with a hint of winter to come.

The little admiral sighed aloud, something he would never have done if company had been present. Late September 18oo, seven years of war with France and her allies.

Once, Beauchamp had envied his contemporaries, at sea in every quarter of the globe, in their fleets, squadrons or flotillas. But in weather like this he was more than satisfied with his office of Admiralty where his shrewd mind as a planner and strategist had won him much respect. Beauchamp had sent more than one flag officer to ignominy, and had placed his confidence in other, more junior men whose experience and ability had been previously overlooked.

Seven years o f war. He turned the thought over in his mind.

Victories and defeats, good ships left to rot until the enemy were almost at the gates, brave men and fools, mutinies and triumphs. Beauchamp had seen it all, had watched new leaders emerging to replace the failures and the tyrants. Collingwood and Troubridge, Hardy and Saumarez, and, of course, the public's darling, Horatio Nelson.

Beauchamp gave a thin smile. Nelson was what the country needed, the very stuff of victory. But he could not see the hero of the Nile enduring the work of Admiralty like himself. Sitting at endless policy meetings, smoothing the fears of King and Parliament, guiding those less eager towards positive action. No, he decided, Nelson would not last a month in Whitehall, any more than he would in a flagship. Beauchamp was over sixty and looked it. He sometimes felt older than time itself.

There was a discreet tap on the door and his secretary peered warily in at him.

'Are you ready, Sir George?'

'Yes.' It sounded like o f course. 'Ask him to come up.'

Beauchamp never stopped working. But he enjoyed seeing his plans come to fruition, his choices for leadership and command rising to his severe standards.

Like his visitor, for instance. Beauchamp looked at the polished doors, the sunlight reflecting on a decanter of claret and two finely cut glasses.

Richard Bolitho, stubborn about some things, unorthodox in others, was one of Beauchamp's rewards. Just three years ago he had appointed him commodore over a handful of ships and sent him into the Mediterranean to seek out and discover the French intentions. He had been a good choice. The rest was history; Bolitho's swift actions and the later arrival of Nelson with a full fleet at his disposal to smash the French squadrons into defeat at the Battle of the Nile. Bonaparte's hopes for a total conquest of Egypt and India had been destroyed.

Now Bolitho was here, but as a newly appointed rear-admiral, a flag officer in his own right with all the doubts behind him. His secretary opened the door.

'Rear-Admiral Richard Bolitho, sir.'

Beauchamp held out his hand, feeling the usual mixture of pleasure and envy. Bolitho looked very well in his new gold

laced coat, he thought, and yet the transition had left the man unchanged. The same black hair with the rebellious lock above his right eye, the level gaze and grave expression which hid the adventurer and at the same time concealed the man's humility which Beauchamp had discovered for himself.

Bolitho saw the scrutiny and smiled.

'It is good to see you, sir.'

Beauchamp gestured to the table. 'Pour, will you. I'm a mite stiff.'

Bolitho watched his hand as he held the decanter above the glasses, steady and firm, when it should be shaking with the excitement he really felt. When he had seen his own reflection in a mirror he had scarcely been able to accept that he had made the final, definite step from captaincy to flag rank. Now he was a rear-admiral, one of the youngest ever appointed, but apart from the uniform, the gleaming epaulettes, each with the solitary silver star, he felt much as before. Surely something should have happened? He had always assumed that the move from wardroom to captain's cabin would alter a man. But the stride from it to the right of hoisting his own flag was like ten leagues by comparison.

Only in others had he seen any real difference. His coxswain, John Allday, could barely stop himself from beaming with pleasure. And when he had visited the Admiralty he had seen the amusement on his superiors' faces when he had shown caution with his ideas. Now, they listened to his suggestions, when before someone might have crushed him into silence. They did not always agree, but they heard him out. That was a change indeed.

Beauchamp eyed him severely above his glass. 'Well, Bolitho, you've got your way, and I've got mine.' He glanced at the nearest window, steamy with the room's heat. 'A squadron of your own. Four ships of the line, two frigates and a sloop of war. You'll be receiving orders from your admiral, but it will be up to you to translate them, eh?'

They clinked their glasses, each suddenly wrapped in his own thoughts.

To Beauchamp it meant a fresh, young squadron, a weapon to fit into the complex of war. To Bolitho it meant a lot more. Beauchamp had done everything to help him. Even to his choice

of captains. All but one of them he knew well, and with good reason, and some he knew like old friends.

Most of them had something in common in that each had served with or under him in the past. Bolitho glanced around the room. In this same room, nineteen years ago, he had been given his first major command, and in many ways his best remembered. In her he had found Thomas Herrick, who had become his first lieutenant and his loyal friend. In the same unhappy ship he had also met John Neale, a twelve-year-old midshipman. Neale was in his squadron now, a captain commanding a frigate of his own.

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