Honour This Day
(Bolitho – 19)
For Kim, with so much love
Mourn, England, mourn and complain
For the brave Lord Nelson's men
Who died upon that day
All on the main…
Broadsheet ballad, 1805
English Harbour, in fact the whole island of Antigua, seemed to crouch motionless as if pinned down by the noon sun. The air was humid and oppressively hot, so that the many vessels scattered at anchor were blurred in heavy haze, like reflections in a steamy looking-glass.
This October in 1804 was only days old, the middle of the hurricane season, and one of the worst on record. Several ships had been lost at sea, or driven ashore when they had been caught in some dangerous channel.
English Harbour was the important, some said vital, headquarters for the fleet which served the Caribbean and to the full extent of the Leeward and Windward Islands. Here was a fine anchorage, a dockyard where even the most serious damage and refitting could be carried out. But peace or war, the sea and the weather were constant enemies, and whereas almost every foreign flag was assumed to be hostile, the dangers of these waters were never taken for granted.
English Harbour was some twelve miles from the capital, St John 's, and so the social life in and around the dockyard was limited. On a flagged terrace of one of the better houses flanking the hillside behind the harbour, a group of people, mostly officials and their ladies, stood wilting in the unmoving air watching the approach of a man-of-war. It seemed to have taken an eternity for the newcomer to gain substance and shape through the shimmering haze, but now she stood, bows-on to the land,
her sails all but flat against her stays and yards.
Ships of war were too commonplace for mention. After years of conflict with France and her allies, such sights were part of these people's daily lives.
This one was a ship-of-the-line, a two-decker, her rounded black and buff hull making a sharp contrast with the milky water and the sky which seemed without colour in the unwavering heat. The sun stood directly above Monk's Hill and was encircled with silver; somewhere out at sea there would be another storm very soon. This ship was different in one respect from other comings and goings. News had been brought by a guardboat that she was from England. To those watching her painstaking approach, just the name of England created so many images. Like a letter from home, a description from some passing sailor. Uncertain weather, shortages, and a daily fear of a French invasion across the Channel. As varied as the land itself, from lush countryside to city squalor. There was hardly a man or woman watching the two-decker who would not have traded Antigua for a mere glimpse of England.
One woman stood apart from the others, her body quite still, except for her hand, which used a fan with economical care to revive the heavy air.
She had tired long ago of the desultory conversation of the people she had come to know and recognise out of necessity. Some of their voices were already slurred with overheated wine, and they had not even sat down to eat as yet.
She turned to conceal her discomfort as she plucked the ivory gown away from her skin. And all the while she watched the ship.
The vessel could have been quite motionless but for a tiny feather of white foam beneath her thrusting, gilded figurehead. Two longboats were leading her inshore, one on either bow; she could not see if they were attached to their mother ship by line or not. They too were barely moving, and only the graceful rise and fall of their oars, pale like wings, gave a hint of effort and purpose.
complex detail. A voice from the past seemed to linger in her mind, which had described a ship as man's most beautiful creation. She could hear him add,
Someone behind her remarked, 'Another round of official visits, I suppose?' No one answered. It was too hot even for speculation. Feet clattered on stone steps and she heard the same voice say, 'Let me know when you get any more news.'
The servant scurried away while his master opened a scrawled message from somebody in the dockyard.
The woman watched the ship but her mind was drawn to the name. Why should it startle her in some way?
Another voice murmured, 'Good God, Aubrey, I thought she was a hulk. Plymouth, wasn't it?'
Glasses clinked, but the woman did not move. Captain Haven? The name meant nothing.
She saw the guardboat pulling wearily towards the tall two-decker. She loved to watch incoming ships, to see the activity on deck, the outwardly confused preparations until a great anchor splashed down. These sailors would be watching the island, many for the first time. A far cry from the ports and villages of England.
The voice commented, 'Yes, she was. But with this war spreading every day, and our people in Whitehall as unprepared as ever, I suspect that even the wrecks along our coastline will be drummed into service.'
A thicker tone said, 'I remember her now. Fought and took a damned great three-decker single-handed. No wonder the poor old girl was laid up after that, eh, what?'
She watched, hardly daring to blink as the two-decker's shape lengthened, her sails being brailed up while she swung so slowly into whatever breeze she could discover.
'She's no private ship, Aubrey.' Interest had moved the man to the balustrade. 'God, she wears an admiral's flag.'
'Vice-Admiral,' corrected his host. 'Very interesting. She's apparently under the flag of Sir Richard Bolitho, Vice-Admiral of the Red.'
The anchor threw up a column of spray as it fell from the
cathead. The woman flattened one hand on the balustrade until the heat of the stone steadied her.
Her husband must have seen her move.
'What is it? Do you know him? A true hero, if half what I've read can be believed.'
She gripped the fan more tightly and pressed it to her breast. So
No wonder she had remembered the ship's name. He had often spoken so affectionately of his old
She was surprised at her sudden emotion, more so at her ability to conceal it.
'I met him. Years ago.'