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Alexander Kent

The Only Victor

(Bolito – 20)

1.'In The Name Of Duty'

CAPTAIN DANIEL POLAND of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Truculent stretched his arms and stifled a yawn, while he waited for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness. As he gripped the quarterdeck rail and the dim figures around him took on identity and status, he was able to accept the pride he felt for this command, and the fashion in which he had moulded his company into a team, one that would react to his wishes and orders with little room for improvement. He had been in command for two years, but would not be fully 'posted' for a further six months. Then, and only then, would he feel safe from disaster. A fall from grace, an unfortunate mistake or misunderstanding of some senior officer's despatches-any of these could hurl him down the ladder of promotion; or worse. But once a post-captain with matching epaulettes on his shoulders, little could shift him. He gave a brief smile. Only death or some terrible wound could do that. The enemy's iron was no respecter of the hopes or ambitions of its victims.

He moved to the small table by the companion way and raised its tarpaulin hood so that he could examine the log by the light of a small shaded lamp.

Nobody on the quarterdeck spoke or disturbed him; every man was well aware of his presence and, after two years, his habits.

As he ran his eyes along the neatly written comments of the most recent officers-of-the-watch he felt his ship lift and plunge beneath him, spray whipping across the open deck like cold hail.

In an hour all would be different. Again he felt the same twinge of pride, cautious pride, for Captain Poland trusted nobody and nothing which might bring displeasure from his superiors, and which in turn might damage his prospects. But if the wind held they would sight the coast of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, perhaps at first light.

Nineteen days. It was probably the fastest passage ever made by a King's ship from Portsmouth. Poland thought of the England they had seen fall into a rain squall as Truculent had thrust her way down-Channel for open waters. Cold. Wet. Shortages and press gangs.

His gaze fastened on the date. The first of February 1806. Perhaps that was the answer. England was still reeling from the news of Trafalgar, which had exploded less than four months ago. It seemed people were stunned more by the death of Nelson, the nation's hero, than the crushing victory over the French and Spanish, fleets.

Even aboard his own ship, Poland had sensed the change, the damage to morale amongst his officers and seamen. Truculent had not even been in the same ocean at the time of the great battle, and to his knowledge none of the people had ever laid eyes on the little admiral. It irritated him, just as he damned the luck whichhad taken his ship so far from a fight out of which only glory and reward could result. It was typical of Poland that he had not considered the awesome lists of dead and wounded after that memorable day off Cape Trafalgar.

He peered up at the pale shape of the bulging mizzen topsail. Beyond it there was only darkness. The ship had rid herself of her heavy canvas and changed every sail to the pale, light-weather rig. She would make a fine sight when the sunlight found her again. He pictured her rapid passage south, with the mountains of Morocco misty blue in the far distance, then south-east across the Equator with the only landfall the tiny island of St Helena, a mere speck on the chart.

It was no wonder that young officers prayed for the chance to gain command of a frigate, where once free of the fleet's apron strings and the interference of one admiral or another, they were their own masters.

He knew that to his company a captain was seen as some kind of god. In many cases it was true. He could punish or reward any soul aboard with impunity. Poland considered himself a just and fair captain, but was sensible enough to know that he was feared rather than liked.

Each day he had made certain that his men were not lacking in work. No admiral would find fault with his ship, either her appearance or efficiency.

His eyes moved to the cabin skylight. It was already sharper in the gloom, or maybe his eyes had become completely used to it. And there would be no mistakes on this passage, not with such an important passenger down there in the captain's quarters.

It was time to begin. He walked to the rail again and stood with one foot on the truck of a tethered nine- pounder.

The ship's second lieutenant appeared as if by magic.

'Mr Munro, you may muster the Afterguard in fifteen minutes, when we shall wear ship.'

The lieutenant touched his hat in the darkness. 'Aye, aye, sir.'

He spoke almost in a whisper, as if he too were thinking of the passenger, and the noise of the Royal Marines' boots above his sleeping cabin.

Poland added irritably, 'And I don't want any slackness! '

Munro saw the sailing-master, who was already at his place near the big double-wheel, give what might have been a shrug. He was probably thinking that the captain would blame him if the dark horizon was as empty as before.

A burly figure moved to the lee side of the deck and Poland heard him fling some shaving-water into the sea. The passenger's personal coxswain, a powerful man by the name of John Allday One who seemed to have little respect for anyone but his viceadmiral. Again, Poland felt a sense of irritation-or was it envy? He thought.

of his own coxswain, as smart and reliable as anyone could wish, one who would take no nonsense from his crew. But never a friend, as Allday appeared to be.

He tried to shrug it off. Anyway, his coxswain was only a common seaman.

He snapped, 'The viceadmiral is up and about, apparently. Call the Afterguard, then pipe the hands to the braces.'

Williams, the first lieutenant, clattered up the ladder and tried to button his coat and straighten his hat when he saw the captain already on deck.

'Good morning, sir! '

Poland replied coldly, 'It had better be! '

The lieutenants glanced at each other and grimaced behind his back. Poland was usually realistic in his dealings with the people, but he had little sense of humour, and as Williams had once put it, divided his guidance evenly between the Bible and the Articles of War.

Calls shrilled between decks and the watch below came thudding along the glistening planking, each man bustling to his familiar station where petty officers stood with their lists, and boatswain's mates were waiting to 'start' any laggard with rope's end or rattan. They were all aware of the importance of the man who wore his reputation like a cloak, and who for most of the lively passage had remained aft in Poland 's quarters.

'There she comes, lads! '

Poland snapped, 'Take that man's name! '

But he looked up nevertheless and saw the first frail glow of light as it touched the whipping and frayed masthead pendant, then flowed down almost like liquid to mark the shrouds. Delicate, salmon-pink. Soon it would spread over the horizon, expand its colour, give life to a whole ocean.

But Poland saw none of these things. Time, distance, logged speed, they were the factors which ruled his daily life.

Allday lounged against the damp nettings. They would be packed with hammocks once the ship lay on her new course. Landfall? It seemed likely but Allday could sense the captain's unease, just as he was aware of his own private anxieties. Usually no matter how bad things had been, he was glad, if not relieved, to quit the shore and get back to a ship again.

This time it was different. Like being motionless with only the ship's wild movements to give the sensation of

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