sharply, that was why he was here, one of the few King's ships now in a Mediterranean from which the Navy, stretched beyond its capacity, had almost completely withdrawn its strength which was needed more urgently from Brest to the Texel, from Jamaica to the Skaw. The Navy's task of blockading the French was like a cooper trying to prevent an old cask from leaking: no sooner was one leak stopped up with a small blockading force than another was spotted.

Of course, that was one of the reasons why Their Lordships m their wisdom had sent off orders from the Admiralty saying that the Calypso was to leave the West Indies 'and make the best of her way' to Gibraltar (a time-honoured phrase). At Gibraltar, Ramage had found fresh instructions waiting for him - he was to provision for four months and enter the Mediterranean. The instructions went on in immaculate copperplate for several pages, but boiled down to the fact that Ramage was being sent into the Mediterranean with the Calypso for four months to create as much havoc as he could along the French and Italian coasts, disrupting shipping, transport, communications . . .

Ramage was at first hard put to know why he and the Calypso had been chosen: it was unlikely that Their Lordships were concerned that he spoke French and Italian fluently and sufficient Spanish. Perhaps they remembered that he knew the Italian coast very well - but Their Lordships rarely bothered themselves with such considerations, reckoning that any officer with a decent chart was as well off as someone who had sailed the coast a hundred times. Or - and he guessed this was the real reason - they wanted a former French frigate.

The Calypso was French built, with a distinctive French sheer and the French cut of sails. With French colours hoisted, a French sailor fifty yards away would not know that the British now owned her. She could pass through a French fleet without arousing suspicion; she could sail into a French-held port and anchor and no one would think anything of it, recognizing the cut of her sails. Signals would be no problem because Ramage had recently captured another French ship and secured a copy of the latest French signal book.

Ramage had captured the Calypso frigate, making her present ship's company (most of whom had sailed with him for two or three years and more) comparatively wealthy, thanks to the prize money. It was appropriate therefore that he should command her for this freebooting expedition into the Mediterranean, although Their Lordships would never let any sentimental considerations affect their decision. In fact, he guessed as he held his cloak closer round him, the answer was probably that they could take a frigate away from the commander-in-chief at Jamaica without too much fuss (Admirals always let out a howl of dismay when they lost a frigate) because the Calypso, being a recent capture, was an extra, a consolation prize. If the commander-in-chief grumbled, the Admiralty could quite reasonably reply that he still had the usual number of frigates.

Slowly, as the Calypso steered inshore, a dark headland which he could just make out to the south divided into four sections. The eastern one was Punta Ala itself, and the three smaller were the islets extending westward, as though a giant had rolled three great boulders off the end of the peninsula. The Calypso had sailed in just far enough to reveal the gaps between them.

A figure approached him in the darkness, padding along the deck like a tame bear. He recognized the bulky shape of Southwick, the Calypso's master.

'The islands have just opened up, sir,' he said.

'Yes, I saw them.'

'The moon should be up in twenty minutes or so. In fact I'm sure I can see a hint of it behind the mountains.'

'Yes,' Ramage said, lifting his nightglass again. 'I can just about make out Monte Amiata over there. It's three or four thousand feet high and must be thirty miles inland of us.'

Southwick gave a characteristic sniff. He had various sorts which described different attitudes and each of which, for anyone who knew him well, represented a whole sentence, sometimes a paragraph. Ramage recognized this one as a prelude to a nostalgic remark; even the preliminary to some sentimental reminiscence. Southwick, now well into his sixties, was tending to become more sentimental as the years passed, and a return to somewhere like the Tuscan coast was sure to stir up old memories.

'Deck there! Foremast here!' came a hail from aloft.

'Deck here!' Southwick shouted back, before he had time to make his remark, and Ramage was thankful he had kept a couple of lookouts aloft throughout the night, though it was customary to bring them down at nightfall and station them round the deck with more men, six pairs of eyes searching the darkness for enemy ships (there was little chance of sighting a friendly one) or breakers on a shoreline.

'I think I can make out two ships anchored in the lee of that headland, sir.'

'Very well - someone'll be up with a bring-'em-near.'

Ramage realized that he was mellowing; a couple of years ago he would have reprimanded a man for the 'I think', telling him either he could or he could not.

The master looked round and an American seaman, Thomas Jackson, seemed to materialize from the darkness. Ramage held out the nightglass. 'Aloft, m'lad; you know what to look for.'

He then murmured to Aitken: 'Send the men to quarters - but do it quietly.'

The usual beat of drum would carry for miles on a quiet night like this and the regular 'Heart of Oak' could hardly be mistaken for a French Revolutionary song.

'Guns run out, sir?'

'No, loaded but don't trice up the port lids.'

Ramage was not quite sure why he wanted the port lids left down. A vague idea was lurking in the back of his mind, like a half-remembered dream, so vague that he knew there was no point in trying to hurry it out.

'Quarterdeck - masthead!'

It was Jackson's voice and Southwick answered.

'Two ships, sir: both anchored close inshore, just a few hundred yards from the beach.'

'North or south side of the headland?' Ramage asked. The little castle of La Rocchette stood on another small headland to the south and the French might have a garrison there and a few guns. If the ships were lying on the north side of Punta Ala then the headland itself hid them from La Rocchette.

'North side, sir, but I can't make out the type of ships. Two masts, but they're not brigs. The foremast is set so far aft. It may be the way they're lying to the wind,' he added doubtfully.

'Very well,' Ramage shouted back, 'stay up there and report anything else ...'

Round him men were gliding to their places for battle: water was being sluiced over the deck and men sprinkled sand on it in the ritual that would soak any stray grains of gunpowder and prevent men slipping on the deck planking. Gun captains were tightening the two wing nuts securing each flintlock and attaching the trigger lanyards, careful then to coil up the long lines and place them on the breeches of the guns.

Aitken, the Scots first lieutenant, hurried up to ask: 'Roundshot, grape or case, sir?'

'Grape in the carronades, roundshot in the rest,' Ramage said briefly. It was going to be interesting trying out the carronades; they had only just been fitted in Gibraltar, six 12-pounders with the new, slides that (so the master armourer in the dockyard assured him) made them easier to run in and out and doubled the rate of fire. They certainly looked effective, each sitting on a sliding wooden bed, instead of being fitted on a carriage with wide trucks like small cartwheels. Everyone on board was familiar with the effectiveness of carronades -  they were devastating at short range but useless at anything over five hundred yards.

Young boys were hurrying past, clutching the wooden cylinders with close-fitting lids in which were carried the powder cartridges for the guns. They had collected them from the magazine and now each boy would squat along the centreline out of the way behind his gun, waiting for the gun captain to call him.

Meanwhile the quartermaster kept an eye on the two men at the wheel, frequently glancing down at the binnacle window, where a shaded candle lit the compass, and then up at the luffs of the sails. East by south was the course given to Ramage by Southwick, and east by south the man steered, neither knowing nor caring that the Calypso's jibboom now pointed towards places whose names sounded like music or were famous from Roman days and earlier -  Vetulonia and Montepescali, Roselle and Vallerona, the mountain named Elmo with Acquapendente beyond it, and the hill town of Orvieto, perhaps the loveliest of them all.

For Ramage the names along the coast had a magic ring, even though he knew them by heart: just beyond La Rocchette was Castiglione della Pescaia, the Portus Traianus of the Romans, and overlooked by a medieval castle with square towers. Then Talamone, then Argentario, almost an island but connected to the mainland by narrow causeways. Beyond the causeways was the old Etruscan town of Ansedonia, now ruined, and close to the Lago di Burano, the lake with the tower beside it, the Torre di Buranaccio.

Neatly spaced all along this coast were the fortified lookout towers watching seaward, built by the Spaniards two centuries ago (mostly by Philip II, who sent the Armada against England); and even now perhaps keeping a lookout for Barbary pirates, Arabs from the northern coast of Africa and still known to the Italians generally as Saraceni. A coast of memories! His own would not be really strong until he was down towards the Torre di Buranaccio, where there was the memory of an enemy musket shot for almost every foot of beach.

In the meantime the downdraught from the mainsail was now chilly on his neck, telling him that the breeze was increasing, and the ship, whose deck had been almost deserted a few minutes ago, was teeming with men, soft-footed and certain in their movements despite the darkness. Watching the topsails and topgallants as black squares stark against the star-spattered sky, Ramage tried to recognize some of the constellations which were now partly obliterated. Orion's Belt was very low in these latitudes; in the West Indies it passed almost overhead.

Aitken came up to report: 'The ship's at general quarters, sir; all guns loaded but none run out.'

Ramage led him to the binnacle, took the chart from the binnacle drawer, and unrolled enough in front of the candlelit window to show the first lieutenant the stretch of coast ahead of them.

'Jackson reports two ships here - just beyond Punta Ala and behind this second little headland, Punta Hidalgo. You see how the bay then makes a great sweep inland - sandy beach, good bottom? Just the place to anchor and wait for a fair wind.'

'Aye, sir,' the young Scot agreed. 'And it tells us yon ships are even less weatherly than we thought: there's enough breeze come up now for us to make a couple of knots ...'

'I expect these Frenchmen like a good night's sleep at anchor,' Ramage said, 'and you can't blame 'em for not wanting to tack down this stretch of coast at night. Here -' he pointed with a finger, 'you can see this reef between Castiglione and the island of Giglio, the Formiche di Grosseto. They wouldn't want to run into that. Formiche means ants, so you can guess how many rocks there are. And if they reached that far south before the moon rose they'd find it difficult to round Argentario - the mountain is big enough to throw a large wind shadow, and they'd get becalmed in the lee of it. . .'

'So you don't think they've anchored inshore because they're suspicious of us, sir?'

Ramage shook his head. 'I don't think they even saw us: don't forget, only our masthead lookouts first sighted them - we never saw a thing from the deck. I

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