At precisely seven o'clock on Monday morning the muffled thud of a signal gun echoed up the channel and across the dockyard, bouncing off the hills and finally losing itself among the valleys. Pelicans paddling lazily round the Calypso suddenly took off, frantically launching themselves with clumsy thrusts from their webbed feet; tiny green herons squawked off into the shelter of the mangrove roots.

 Ramage watched the smoke from the Invincible's gun drift away to leeward and saw high at her mizenmast-head a Union flag break out and flutter lazily in a gentle breeze. Four men now in irons on board the flagship would have heard that gun - it would be only a few feet from where they were under guard - and they would know they were soon to stand trial for their lives over something that happened more than two years ago.

 Will Stafford put down the telescope, picked up the slate and wrote: '7 o'clock, flagship fired one gun and hoisted Union at mizen m'head.' He glanced up but decided to wait before adding the rest of the entry: 'Captain & First Lieutenant left ship to attend court martial.'

 He saw that both officers looked drawn: the skin on the Captain's face was taut, and the light from the sun, still low, emphasized his high cheekbones and deep-sunk eyes. He was tanned, but Stafford saw the strain was there. And the First Lieutenant - Mr Aitken never took a tan, and now he was even more pale, and nervous too, fiddling with his sword, his eyes glancing round the ship. Anyone would think they were on trial, Stafford thought, instead of the two pair o' murderers.

 Ramage saw that the boat was waiting at the starboard gangway, the painter being held forward and the sternfast aft. He patted his pocket to make sure he was carrying his commission and saw Southwick had noticed the gesture and knew what it meant. The Master obviously had in mind discreetly checking that he had not forgotten it.

 The Calypso was the farthest from the Invincible, yet already a boat was on its way from one of the other frigates. Southwick raised an eyebrow and Ramage nodded, whereupon the Master bellowed: 'Man the side! ' Two seamen ran to the gangway and swung over the side to hold out the manropes for the two officers to grasp as they climbed down the ship's side, treading carefully on the battens that formed narrow steps. Ramage gestured to Aitken, who swung his sword round, jammed his hat firmly on his head and went over the side into the boat. Ramage followed, and when they went alongside the Invincible the sequence would be reversed: the senior officer was the last in and first out of a boat.

 Jackson soon had the men rowing briskly, but Ramage told him to slow down. The court martial began at eight, and within the limits of obeying orders - which meant obeying the seven o'clock gun - he had no wish to waste time on board the flagship in idle chat with the other captains. The Admiral, for once, could sleep in late at his house in the dockyard: he would not appear on board the flagship until the trial was over, because no doubt his great cabin would be used, with refreshments served in the coach.

 The boat was a pistol shot from the Invincible when a Marine sentry shouted 'Boat ahoy! ' and Jackson bellowed back 'Calypso! ', the traditional way of indicating that the boat carried the captain of the ship named. Ramage heard shouted orders and sidesmen appeared to hold out the two manropes.

 Edwards was on deck to greet him, bulky and cheerful, swordhilt gleaming in the early sunlight, the picture of a competent and confident flagship captain. He gestured to two captains standing behind him. Like Ramage, both were wearing epaulets only on their right shoulders, showing that they had less than three years' seniority.

 'You've all met?' Edwards asked. They had not and Edwards introduced them: Edward Teal of the Anita, a thin man of perhaps forty, sad-faced and probably embittered that it had taken him so many years to be made post, and John Banks of the Nereus, plump and red-faced, and four or five years older than Ramage, a man as cheerful as Teal was melancholy. Ramage then introduced Aitken.

 A Marine sentry hailed again and a third captain came on board and was introduced to Ramage. John Marden wore epaulets on both shoulders and, Ramage was told, had commanded the Wasp frigate in the West Indies for more than two years. Marden was barely five feet tall and lean, his face tanned and lined. His eyes were sharp and his ears curiously pointed, reminding Ramage of a pixie.

 Edwards took out his watch. 'Twenty minutes to go. I trust you all have your commissions?' With that he led the way to his cabin and offered them tea.

 Precisely at eight o'clock another gun fired in the Invincible to signal the beginning of the trial and Captain Edwards led the way to the Admiral's great cabin. The long dining table had been put athwartships at the after end of the cabin with five chairs placed along one side, so that the captains would sit facing forwards, their backs to the big sternlights.

 A rotund, bespectacled man already sat at a chair at one end, a pile of papers, inkwell, pen and several books in front of him. Edwards introduced the Invincible's purser, Eric Gowers, who had been appointed deputy judge advocate.

 There were two rows of chairs at the forward end of the cabin - Ramage guessed they came from the wardroom and that the ship's officers would be eating their meals sitting on forms until the trial ended - with a single chair in front of the table ready for the witness. Between the table and the first row Of chairs was an open space: there the prisoners would stand, guarded by Marines and with the provost marshal to one side.

 As if to underline the fact that the Invincible was primarily a fighting ship, there were two guns on each side in the cabin, their train tackles neatly coiled, the barrels shining black and the carriages and trucks freshly painted. The gun ports were open to keep the cabin cool. Against the forward bulkhead there was a well- polished mahogany sideboard with a matching wine-cooler beside it, shaped like a Greek urn. Over the sideboard was an oil painting of a plump and pleasant-looking woman, probably the Admiral's wife. She looked amiable enough, Ramage noted.

 Edwards went to the centre chair at the after side of the table and sat down. In front of him was a small gavel, and he looked at the four captains. 'We might as well begin. Please read your commissions - you start, ' he said, gesturing to Marden.

 Ramage saw that Gowers, the deputy judge advocate, noted down the date of the commission: Marden had been made post six years ago. As soon as all the commissions had been read, establishing their seniority, Edwards told them to take their seats. Marden, as the senior, sat on Edwards's right, with Teal on his left, Banks beyond Marden and Ramage, as the junior, next to Teal, on Captain Edwards's extreme left.

 By now a Marine lieutenant had come into the cabin: he must be acting as the provost marshal (at an extra four shillings a day, Ramage thought inconsequentially).

 Edwards gestured towards Gowers. 'Very well, we will make a start.'

 The deputy judge advocate turned to the provost marshal. 'Bring in the prisoners and all the witnesses. The prisoners first.'

 Two Marines with drawn cutlasses marched into the cabin, the white pipeclay on their crossbelts a startling contrast to their polished black boots. Behind them, shuffling in single file, came four seamen, unshaven, their faces shiny with perspiration and their wrists in iron. Two more Marines followed.

 The Marine lieutenant walked round to line up the men in front of the table but Edwards, seeing the pistol in his hand, snapped: 'We don't need pistols. Leave that thing outside! '

 As the provost marshal hurried out the seamen took up their positions and Ramage saw that none of them looked up at the five captains facing them. Mutineers? Perhaps, but they looked like any seamen chosen at random - or, for that matter, any four men picked off the streets of a country town on market day. The only difference was that they were frightened; awed and overwhelmed at finding themselves standing in an admiral's cabin, facing five captains, flanked by armed Marines, and on trial for their lives.

 Ramage rubbed a scar over his right eyebrow. He could imagine what each of the men was thinking. Each was trying to relate this moment with the time two years ago when a yelling horde of their shipmates seized the Jocasta and murdered the captain and officers. Had these men been terrified onlookers, active mutineers, or the men who had actually committed murders? And how was the court to discover the truth?

 Would one of the men stand as witness against the other three - turn 'King's evidence' as it was usually called? Captain Edwards had just explained, over their cups of tea, that there seemed some doubt whether an offer could be made to a prisoner before the trial began - that he would be allowed a free pardon if he gave evidence against the other accused men. Edwards had roundly cursed the fact that there was no judge advocate in the fleet. He and the purser had read through the only available books on naval courts martial, and there was a reference to a famous judge saying that if a man was promised a reward for giving his evidence before he actually gave it, this 'disables his testimony'. All five captains knew of cases where one of the accused had 'turned King's evidence' but none of them had been a member of the court when it happened. And Edwards, anxious that there should be no mistakes, had decided to wait and see how the trial proceeded.

 Finally the provost marshal was back, looking harassed but without his pistol, and followed by several officers, including Aitken. Only the Scot was a witness; the rest were onlookers. The moment they were all seated Edwards tapped the table gently with the gavel, obviously careful not to damage the polished wood.

 'The court is in session. Gowers, read the orders.'

 The purser selected several sheets of paper, stood up, adjusted his spectacles and read out the Admiral's order for assembling the court martial.

 Devon, Ramage thought to himself; the purser is a Devon man. Shrewd, alert, probably a very competent purser. But, like the rest of the court, his knowledge of law extended no further than the pages of the two or three reference books in front of him - and upon whose pages the lives of these four men might well depend. Not even that, because the facts and points of law the books contained were only as relevant as the court's ability to find them ...

 Gowers finally read the warrant appointing him, put down the papers and picked up a Bible. He then walked round to the front of the table, stopping in front of Captain Edwards. He handed him a card as Edwards put his hand on the Bible. Edwards began reading the oath written on the card, and Ramage saw all four prisoners look up.

 'I, James Edwards, do swear that I will duly administer justice according to the Articles of War and orders established by an act passed in the twenty-second year of the reign of His Majesty King George II ... without partiality or favour or affection; and if any case shall arise which is not particularly mentioned in the said Articles and orders, I will duly administer justice according to my conscience, the best of my understanding, and the custom of the Navy in like cases ...'

 Gowers then administered the oath to the other captains in order of seniority, and then himself took an oath that he would never 'disclose or discover the vote or opinion of any particular member of this court unless thereunto required by act of Parliament.'

 Now the court was legally in existence, and Gowers sorted through his papers once more, found what he wanted and, when he glanced across at Captain Edwards, received an approving nod. He half turned towards the four prisoners and as if guessing what was coming, three of them stared down at the deck; the fourth, standing at the far end of the line and the oldest among them, almost bald with the round face of a village grocer, kept his eyes on the deputy judge advocate.

 It was not the stare of defiance, Ramage was certain of that. The other three now seemed to be shrinking, as though fear was slowly wilting them, but the fourth man appeared to be gaining confidence as the others were losing it.

 Gowers began reading out the charge. It was brief. After naming the four men and saying they had been part of the Jocasta's ship's company on the day of the mutiny, it first accused them of taking part in the mutiny and 'aiding and assisting' in the murder of Captain Wallis, four lieutenants, master, midshipman, surgeon and the lieutenant of Marines. It then went on to accuse them of 'aiding and assisting' in running away with the ship and handing her over to the enemy, deserting, 'holding

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