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A Brig of War

Richard Woodman 

For Christine

'I shall believe that they are going on with their scheme of possess­ing Alexandria, and getting troops into India — a plan concerted with Tipoo Sahib, by no means so difficult as might at first be imagined.

NELSON, 1798

Paris

February 1798

Rain beat upon the rattling window and beyond the courtyard the naval captain watched the tricolour stiff with wind, bright against the grey scud sweeping over Paris. In his mind's eye he conjured the effect of the gale upon the green waters of the Channel and the dismal, rain-sodden shore of the English coast beyond.

Behind him the two secretaries bent over their desks. The rustle of papers was reverently hushed. An air of expectancy filled the room, emphasised by the open door. Presently rapid footsteps sounded in the corridor and the secretaries bent with more diligence over their work. The naval officer half turned from the window, then resumed his survey of the sky.

The footsteps sounded louder and into the room swept a short, thin, pale young man whose long hair fell over the high collar of his over-large general's coat. He was accompanied by an hussar, whose elaborate pelisse dangled negligently from his left shoulder.

'Ah, Bourienne!' said the general abruptly in a voice that reflected the same energy as the restless pacing he had fallen into. 'Have you the dispatches for Generals Dommartin and Cafarelli, eh? Good, good.' He took the papers and glanced at them, nodding with satisfaction. 'You see Androche,' he remarked to the hussar, 'it goes well, very well and the project of England is dead.' He turned towards the window. 'Whom have we here, Bourienne?'

'This is Capitaine de Frégate Santhonax, General Bonaparte.'

'Ah!'

Hearing his name the naval officer turned from the window. He was much taller than the general, his handsome features severely disfigured by a recent scar that ran upwards from the corner of his mouth into his left cheek. He made a slight bow and met General Bonaparte's appraising grey eyes.

'So, Captain, you contrived to escape from the English, eh?'

'Yes Citizen General, I arrived in Paris three weeks ago.'

'And have already married, eh?' Santhonax nodded, aware that the Corsican knew all about him. The general resumed his pacing, head sunk in thought. 'I have just come from an inspection of the Channel Ports and the arrangements in hand for an invasion of England…' he stopped abruptly in front of Santhonax. 'What are your views of the practicality of such an enterprise?'

'Impossible without complete command of the Channel: any attempt without local superiority would be doomed, Citizen General. Conditions in the Channel can change rapidly, we should have to hold it for a week at least. The British fleet, if it cannot be overwhelmed, must be dissipated by ruse and threat…'

'Exactly! That is what I have informed the Directory… but do we have the capability to achieve such a local superiority?'

'No, Citizen General.' Santhonax lowered his eyes before the penetrating stare of Bonaparte. While this young man had been trouncing the Austrians out of Italy he had been working to achieve such a combination by bringing the Dutch fleet to Brest. The attempt had been shattered by the British at Camperdown four months earlier.

'Huh!' exclaimed Bonaparte, 'then we agree at all points, Captain. That is excellent, excellent. The Army of England is to have employment in a different quarter, eh Androche?' He turned to the hussar, 'This is Androche Junot, Captain, an old friend of the Bonapartes.' The two men bowed. 'But the Army of England will lay the axe to the root of England's wealth. What is your opinion of the English, Captain?'

Santhonax sighed. 'They are the implacable enemies of the Revolution, General Bonaparte, and of France. They possess qualities of great doggedness and should not be underestimated.'

Bonaparte sniffed in disagreement. 'Yet you escaped from them, no? How did you accomplish that, eh?'

'Following my capture I was taken to Maidstone Gaol. After a few weeks I was transferred to the hulks at Portsmouth. However my uniform was so damaged in the action off Camperdown that I managed to secure a civilian coat from my gaolers. When the equipage in which I was travelling changed horses at a place called Guildford, I made my escape.'

'And?'

Santhonax shrugged. 'I turned into an adjacent alleyway and then the first tavern where I took a corner seat. I speak English without an accent, Citizen General.'

'And this?' Bonaparte pointed to his own cheek.

'The escort were looking for a man with a bandage. I removed it and occupied an obscure corner. I was not discovered.' He paused, then added, 'I am used to subterfuge.'

'Yes, yes, Captain, I know of your services to the Republic, you have a reputation for intrepidity and audacity. Admiral Bruix speaks highly of you and as you are not at present quite persona grata with the Directory,' Bonaparte paused while Santhonax flushed at the illusion to his failure, 'he recommends you to this especial command.' The general stopped again in front of Santhonax and looked directly up at him. 'You are appointed to a frigate I understand, Captain?'

'The Antigone, Citizen General, now preparing for a distant cruise at Rochefort. I am also to have the corvettes La Torride and Annette with me. I am directed to take command as commodore on receipt of your final orders.'

'Good, very good.' Bonaparte held out his hand to Bourienne and the secretary handed him a sealed packet. 'The British have a small squadron in the Red Sea. They should cause you no fear. As you have been told, the Army under my command is bound for Egypt. When my veterans reach the shores of the Red Sea I anticipate you will have secured a sufficiency of transport, local craft of course, and a port of embarkation for a division. You will convey it to India, Captain Santhonax. You are familiar with those waters?'

'I served under Suffren, Citizen General. So we are to harrass the British in India.' Santhonax's eyes glowed with a new enthusiasm.

'You will carry but the advance guard. Paris burns the soles of my feet, Captain. In India may be found the empire left by Alexander. There greatness awaits us.' It was not the speech of a fanatic, Santhonax had heard enough of them during the Revolution. But Bonaparte's enthusiasm was infectious. After the defeat of Camperdown and his capture, Santhonax's ambition had seemed exhausted. But now, in a few words, this dynamic little Corsican had swept the past aside, like the Revolution itself. New visions of glory were opened to the imagination by a man to whom all things seemed possible.

Abruptly Bonaparte held out the sealed packet to Santhonax. Junot bent forward to whisper in his ear. 'Ah! Yes, Androche reminds me that your wife is a celebrated beauty. Good, good. Marriage is what binds a man to his country and beauty is the inspiration of ambition, eh? You shall bring Madame Santhonax to the Rue Victoire this evening, Captain, my wife is holding a soirée. You may proceed to Rochefort tomorrow. That is all Captain.'

As Santhonax left the room General Bonaparte was already dictating to his secretaries.

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