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Alexander Kent

BEYOND THE REEF

(Bolitho – 21)

For Kim, my Tahiti girl – with love

1. BAND OF BROTHERS

THE NORMALLY sheltered waters of Portsmouth Harbour seemed to cringe under the intensity of a biting north-easterly which had been blowing for some twelve hours. The whole anchorage was transformed into an endless mass of cruising whitecaps with lively catspaws to mark its progress around the many black-and-buff hulls of moored men-of-war, making them tug violently at their cables.

It was late March, a time when winter was still reluctant to release its grip and eager to display its latent power.

One of the largest ships, recently warped from the dockyard where she had suffered the indignities of repairs to the lower hull, was the second-rate Black Prince of 94 guns, her fresh paintwork and blacked-down rigging shining like glass from blown spray and a brief rainsquall which even now had reached as far out as the Isle of Wight, a dull blur in the poor light.

Black Prince was one of the most powerful of her kind, and to anyone but a true sailor she would appear a symbol of sea-power, the country's sure shield. The more experienced eye would recognise her empty yards, the canvas not yet sent up to give her life as well as strength. She was surrounded by lighters and dockyard longboats, while small armies of riggers and ropemakers moved busily about her decks, and the clatter of hammers and the squeak of tackles were evidence of the work being carried out in the deep holds and on the gun-decks.

Alone by the packed hammock-nettings Black Prince's captain stood at the quarterdeck rail and watched the comings and goings of seamen and dockyard workers, who in turn were supervised by the ship's warrant officers, the true backbone of any warship.

Captain Valentine Keen tugged his hat still tighter across his fair hair but was otherwise oblivious, even indifferent, to the biting wind and the fact that his flapping blue coat with its tarnished seagoing epaulettes was soaked through to his skin.

Without looking, he knew that the men on watch near the deserted double-wheel were very aware of his presence. A quartermaster, a boatswain's mate and a small midshipman who occasionally raised a telescope to peer at the signal tower or the admiral's flagship nearby, a sodden flag curling and cracking from her main truck.

Many of the men who had served the guns around him when they had fought and all but destroyed the big French three-decker off the coast of Denmark had been taken from his command while the ship had undergone repairs from that short, savage embrace. Some for promotion to other vessels, others because, as the port admiral had put it, 'My captains need men now, Captain Keen. You will have to wait.'

Keen allowed his mind to stray back over the battle, the terrible sight in the dawn when they had gone to assist RearAdmiral Herrick's Benbow in his defence of a twenty-ship convoy destined for the invasion of Copenhagen. Shattered, burning hulks, screaming cavalry horses trapped below in the transports, and Benbow completely dismasted, her only other escort capsized, a total loss.

Mercifully Benbow had been towed to the Nore for docking. It would be too painful to see her here every waking day. A constant reminder, especially for Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Bolitho, whose flag would soon break out again from this ship's foremast. Herrick had been Bolitho's oldest friend, but Keen had been more angered than saddened by Herrick's behaviour both before and after Benbow's last fight. It might well be her last too, he thought grimly. With the many ships they had seized from Copenhagen to bolster their own depleted fleets and squadrons, any dockyard might think twice before committing itself to such a programme of repairs and restoration.

Keen thought of Bolitho, a man he cared for more than any other. He had served him as midshipman and lieutenant, and with him in the same squadron until eventually he had become his flag captain. Keen imagined him now with his lovely Catherine, as he had done so often since their return to England. He had tried to close his mind to it, not to make comparisons. But he had wanted a love like theirs for himself, the same challenging passion which had captured the hearts of ordinary people everywhere, and had roused the fury of London society because of their open relationship. A scandal, they proclaimed. Keen sighed. He would give his soul to be in the same position.

He walked to the small table beneath the overhang of the dripping poop and opened the log at the place marked with a piece of polished whalebone. He stared at the date on the damp page for several seconds. How could he forget? March 25th 1808, two months exactly since he had put the ring on the hand of his bride in the tiny village church at Zennor, which had given her her name.

Like the battle which had preceded his wedding by four months, it seemed like yesterday.

He still did not know. Did she love him, or was her marriage an act of gratitude? He had rescued her from a convict ship, and from transportation for a crime she had not committed. Or did his uncertainty stem from the fact that he was almost twice her age, when he believed she could have chosen anyone? If he did not contain it, Keen knew it would drive him mad. He was almost afraid to touch her, and when she had given herself to him it had been an act without passion, without desire. She had merely submitted, and later during that first night he had found her by the embers of the fire downstairs, sobbing silently as if her heart had already broken.

Time and time again Keen had reminded himself of Catherine's advice when he had visited her in London. He had confessed his doubts about Zenoria's true feelings for him.

Catherine had said quietly, 'Remember what happened to her. A young girl-taken and used, with no hope, and nothing to live for.'

Keen bit his lip, recalling the day he had first seen her, seized up, almost naked, her back laid open from shoulder to hip while the other prisoners had watched like wild beasts, as if it had been some kind of savage sport. So perhaps it was, after all, gratitude; and he should be satisfied, as many men would be merely to have her.

But he was not.

He saw the first lieutenant, James Sedgemore, striding aft towards him. He at least seemed more than pleased with his lot. Keen had promoted him to senior lieutenant after the tough Tynesider Cazalet had been cut in half on this same quarterdeck on that terrible morning. The enemy ship had been the San Mateo, a powerful Spaniard sailing under French colours, and she had crushed the convoy and its escorts like a tiger despatching rabbits. Keen had never seen Bolitho so determined to destroy any ship as he had been to put down San Mateo. She had sunk his old Hyperion. He had needed no other reason.

Keen often found himself wondering if Bolitho would have held to his threat to keep pouring broadsides into San Mateo, which had already been crippled in the first embrace at close quarters. Until they strike their colours. Thank God someone still sane enough to think and act in that hell of iron and screaming splinters had brought the flags tumbling down. But would he have continued, without mercy, otherwise?

I may never know.

Lieutenant Sedgemore touched his hat, his face red in the stinging air. 'I shall be able to get the sails ready for bending-on tomorrow, sir.'

Keen glanced at the Royal Marine sentries by the hatchways and up on the forecastle. With the land so close there were always the reckless few who would try to run. It would be hard enough to get more hands, especially in a naval port, without allowing men the opportunity to desert.

Keen had much sympathy for his men. They had been kept aboard or sent directly to other ships to fill the gaps, without any chance to see their loved ones or their homes.

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