Alexander Kent

Success to the Brave

(Bolitho – 17)

How sleep the brave, who sink to rest,

By all their country's wishes blest!

William Collins. 1746

1. Flag at the Fore

Richard Bolitho leaned his palms on the sill of an open window and stared across the courtyard to the far wall and the sea beyond.

It should have been a perfect May day, and even the squat silhouette of Pendennis Castle which guarded the Falmouth approaches and the entrance to Carrick Roads seemed less formidable. After nine years of war with France and her allies England was at peace. It was still hard to accept. When a strange sail appeared off the coast the young men of Falmouth no longer stood to arms in case it was an enemy raider, or hurried inland with less enthusiasm if the newcomer proved to be a King's ship. The latter always meant the arrival of the hated press- gangs and men snatched from their homes to serve at sea, perhaps never to return. No wonder it was hard to believe it was all over.

He watched the carriage resting in the shadows near the stables. It was nearly time. Soon the horses would be led out and harnessed. It was no longer next week or even tomorrow. It was now.

Bolitho turned and waited for his eyes to grow accustomed to the room after the reflected sunlight. The big grey house which had served the Bolitho family for generations was very still, as if it too was holding its breath, trying to hold back the inevitable.

It had been seven months since he had returned here after the battle which had destroyed the enemy's hopes of an invasion and had equally crippled the French bargaining power at the peace negotiations. Seven months since he had married Belinda and had known a sublime happiness which he had never expected.

He walked to the foot of the great staircase and glanced at the shadowy family portraits. They must all have stood here at such a moment, he thought. Wondering when or if they would ever see the house again. His great, great grandfather, Captain Daniel Bolitho, on the deck of his blazing ship. He had died in the War of the Protestant Alliance. The Bolitho features were very clear in the portrait. Like Bolitho's father and his brother Hugh, also dead, and all the others.

Now he was off to sea again and the past few months seemed to have gone in the turning of an hour-glass. When he had been summoned to the Admiralty in London he had not known what to expect. With the Peace of Amiens signed and apparently holding, it seemed as if all the bitterly won lessons had been thrown aside. Most of the fleet had been laid up and thousands of officers and men discharged to fend as best they could.

Posts for junior flag-officers would be few and handed out as favours by the lords of admiralty. Bolitho had been astonished when he had been told of his orders to sail with a minimum of delay for America and then the Caribbean. Not in command of another squadron, but in a small two-decker with a mere frigate for communications and general escort.

He had been courteously if formally received by Admiral Sir Hayward Sheaffe who had succeeded old Admiral Beauchamp. He had seemed to stamp the difference between war and peace, Bolitho thought. Beauchamp, worn out by illness, had died in harness without knowing his last strategy had succeeded with the French invasion fleet's destruction. Sheaffe was cool, practical, the perfect administrator. It had been hard to imagine his ever being through the mill from midshipman to his present lofty appointment.

In this quiet room Bolitho could recall Sheaffe's words as if they had just been uttered.

'I know this must seem a hard decision, Bolitho. After your escape from an enemy prison and your subsequent victory over the French admiral, Remond, you will have been expecting, and many would say rightly so, a more stable appointment. However…' His voice had lingered on the word. 'War does not end with the last ball fired. Their lordships require a man of tact as well as action for this task. It is not without reward, I think. You are to be promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Red.' His eyes had studied Bolitho's features to seek his reaction. 'The youngest and most junior on the Navy List.' He had added dryly, 'Apart from Nelson, that is, the nation's darling.'

So that was it. Sheaffe was jealous of those who had become known and admired by friend and enemy alike. In spite of his status and power, SheafFe still envied them.

Perhaps that was why he had failed to mention that the real reason for Bolitho's concern was that Belinda would be having their first child in just a matter of weeks. Sheaffe knew about it, it had even reached the London newspapers that the church here in Falmouth had been packed to the doors with officers and men of Bolitho's squadron on that special October day in 1801, last year. Perhaps he was jealous of that fact also?

Bolitho had said nothing. If Sheaffe wanted him to explain, to plead for a delay in the sailing date, he had not understood him at all.

He heard her steps on the flagged floor beyond the entrance and straightened his back.

Even with the sunlight behind her, and her face part hidden in shadow, she was beautiful. He never got tired of watching her, of the longing she roused in him. The sunlight touched her chestnut-coloured hair and the soft curve of her throat.

She said, 'It's time.'

Her voice was low and level, and Bolitho knew what the effort was costing her.

As if to mock their emotions he heard the hoofs of the two horses on the cobbles, the untroubled voices of the grooms.

She moved towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders. 'I am so proud of you, dearest. My husband, a vice-admiral – ' Her lip quivered and a new brightness in her eyes betrayed her distress.

He held her gently, her once slender body pressing against his as if the child was already with them.

'You must take every care while I am away, Belinda.'

She leaned back in his arms and looked at him searchingly as if she needed to remember every detail.

'You are the one who must take care. You have seen to all my wants. Everyone is so kind, wanting to help, to be near, when all I need is you.' She shook her head as he made to speak. 'Don't worry, I will not break down. In spite of your leaving, I am happy, can you understand that? Each day in the past months has been like the first time. When you hold me it seems a new experience. When you enter me and we are one, I am filled with love for you. But I am not a fool and would never wish to stand between you and your other world. I see your eyes as you watch a ship sail into Carrick Roads, your expression when Thomas or Allday mentions some place or experience I can never share. When you return I shall be waiting, but wherever you are, we shall remain as one.'

There was a tap at the door and Allday stood watching them, his homely face grave and uncertain.

'All ready, sir.'

Allday, like an oak, who represented so much of that other world which Belinda had described. Now in his best blue coat and nankeen breeches he looked every inch a sailor, the coxswain of a vice-admiral. He had stayed at Bolitho's side since he had been a junior captain. Together they had seen fine and terrible sights, had suffered and rejoiced in equal proportions.

When he had been told of the unexpected and advanced promotion, Allday had remarked cheerfully, 'Flag at the fore at last, eh, sir? Quite right too, in my opinion. Don't know what took 'em so long.'

'Thank you.'

He saw Allday open the new coat for him to slip his arms into the sleeves. Once the impossible dream when he

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