Alexander Kent

Man of War

(Bolitho – 28)

For you, Kim, With all my love.

The Revenge comes out of the squall!

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

1. New Horizon

Eight bells had chimed out from the forecastle and the lower deck was cleared while the ship moved steadily, purposefully some would say, toward the widening span of land, which seemed to reach out on either bow. The moment every sailor carried in his thoughts. The landfall. This landfall. Home.

The sails, already reduced to topsails and jibs, were hardly filling, the tough canvas still shedding moisture like rain from the final, overnight approach.

Hills and cliffs, at first in shadow and then opening up to the watery sunshine. Landmarks, familiar to some of the older hands, the names of others called down by the masthead lookouts while the land gained shape and colour, dark green in some places, but the brown of winter still clinging elsewhere. For it was early March, 1817, and the air was as keen as a knife.

Eight days out of Gibraltar, a fair passage when set against the adverse winds which had challenged every mile as they had skirted the Bay of Biscay, up and around the well-remembered names of Ushant and Brest, the enemy coast for so long. It was still hard to believe that those days had changed. As had the life of every man aboard this graceful, slow-moving frigate, His Britannic Majesty's ship Unrivalled of forty-six guns, and a complement of two hundred and fifty sailors and Royal Marines.

Or so it had been when they had left this same port of Plymouth. Now there was a sense of contained excitement, and uncertainty. There were boys who had become men while the ship had been away. They would find a different life waiting upon their return. And the older ones, like Joshua Cristie, the sailing master, and Stranace the gunner, would be thinking of the many ships which had been paid off, hulked, or even sold to those same enemies from the past.

For this was all they had. They knew no other life.

The long masthead pendant lifted and held in a sudden flurry of wind. Partridge, the burly boatswain, as rotund as his namesake, called, 'Lee braces there! Stand by, lads! ' But even he, whose thick voice had contested the heaviest gales and crashing broadsides, seemed unwilling to break the silence.

There were now only shipboard noises, the creak of spars and rigging, the occasional thud of the tiller head, their constant companions over the months, the years since Unrivalled'^ keel had first tasted salt water; that, too, right here in Plymouth.

And nobody alive this day would be more aware of the challenge which might now be confronting him.

Captain Adam Bolitho stood by the quarterdeck rail and watched the land edging out in a slow and final embrace. Buildings, even a church, were taking shape, and he saw a fishing lugger on a converging tack, a man climbing into the rigging to wave as the frigate's shadow passed over him. How many hundreds of times had he stood in this place? As many hours as he had walked the deck, or been called from his cot for some emergency or other.

Like the last time in Biscay, when a seaman had been lost overboard. It was nothing new. A familiar face, a cry in the night, then oblivion. Perhaps he, too, had been thinking of going home. Or leaving the ship. It only took a second; a ship had no forgiveness for carelessness or that one treacherous lapse of attention.

He shook himself and gripped the scabbard of the old sword beneath his coat, something else he did without noticing it. He glanced along his command, the neat batteries of eighteen-pounders, each muzzle exactly in line with the gangway above it. The decks clean and uncluttered, each unwanted piece of cordage flaked down, while sheets and braces were loosened in readiness. The scars of that last savage battle at Algiers, a lifetime ago or so it felt sometimes, had been carefully repaired, painted or tarred, hidden except to the eye of the true sailor.

A block squeaked and without turning his head he knew that the signals party had hoisted Unrivalled^ number. Not that many people would need telling.

It was only then that you remembered. Roger Cousens had been the signals midshipman. Keen, caring, likeable. Another missing face. He felt the northwesterly wind on his cheek, like a cold hand.

A voice said quietly, 'Guardboat, sir.' No excitement. More like two men exchanging a casual remark in a country lane.

Adam Bolitho took a telescope from another midshipman, his eyes passing over familiar figures and groups which were like part of himself. The helmsmen, three in case of any last second's trick by the wind or tide; the master, one hand on a chart but his eyes on the land. A squad of marines paraded, ready if needed to support the after guard at the mizzen braces. The first lieutenant; a boatswain's mate; and two marine drummer boys who seemed to have grown since they had last seen Plymouth.

He steadied the glass and saw the guard boat oars tossed, quite motionless at this distance. His jaw tightened. It was what his uncle had called marking the chart for us.

It was time.

Not too soon, and never too late. He said, 'Hands wear ship, Mr. Galbraith! '

He could almost feel the first lieutenant's eyes. Surprise? Acceptance? The danger was past. Formality had taken over.

'Lee braces there! Hands wear ship! '

'Tops'1 sheets! ' Seamen strained back on braces and halliards. A boatswain's mate pushed two extra hands to add their strength as Unrivalled continued toward her allotted anchorage.

'Helm a-lee! ' The slightest hesitation, and the big double wheel began to swing over, helmsmen moving like a single body.

Adam Bolitho shaded his eyes as the sunlight lanced between the shrouds and flapping canvas, as the ship, his ship, turned steadily into the wind.

He saw his coxswain watching across the busy deck, waiting to call away the gig, ready for the unexpected.

'Let go! '

The great anchor dropped from the cathead, spray bursting up and over the beautiful figurehead.

After all the miles, the pain and the triumph, for better or worse, Unrivalled had come home.

Lieutenant Leigh Galbraith looked aloft to make certain that the excitement of returning to England had not allowed slackness to mar the sail drill.

Each sail was neatly furled, the masthead pendant curling in the offshore wind, the ensign streaming above the taffrail, bright against the land, hoisted to replace a well-worn and ragged one before the dawn had broken. Marine

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