doubt if the French keep lookouts aloft at night in whatever vessels they are. If we had frightened them, they'd have anchored here, under the guns of La Rocchette - the castle covers the anchorage on either side of the headland - not off Punta Hidalgo.'

There were faint shadows across the deck now and Ramage glanced up from the chart to see the top edge of the moon just peeping up to the east, the hills and mountains of Tuscany making a horizon jagged like torn paper. With the anchored ships and Punta Hidalgo over to the east, they would soon show up well against the moonlight while the Calypso, approaching from the dark west, would not be seen until the last moment. When it was brighter in fifteen minutes or so the golden disc of the moon would make enough light to pick up the Calypso's sails, but what sort of lookout would the French be keeping?

As if reading his thoughts, Aitken said in his soft Highland voice: 'We can hope they all had a good tipple of wine before they turned in for the night. With a bit o' luck any lookouts will be stretched out on the hatches, fast asleep.'

'If they have lookouts . . . We're probably the only British ship within a thousand miles. They can treat every ship they see as a friend. Of course, that makes it much easier for us - every ship we see is an enemy.'

'Deck there!' Jackson hailed, and when Ramage answered he reported: 'Now the moon's up I can see both ships anchored abreast of each other, sir, a cable or so between 'em, and a cable from the beach. Can't make out what they are, though; just that the foremast is set well aft. Maybe it gives a bigger forehatch for cargo.'

Ramage could just make out the vessels now, so there was no need for Jackson to stay aloft with the nightglass. At general quarters he was usually the quartermaster, watching the men at the wheel, the wind direction and the set of the sails. Ramage called the American down on deck again.

Two enemy ships anchored off the beach and a couple of hundred yards apart . . . Even if they were keeping a lookout, the men would see only a French frigate approaching out of the darkness. The moon would show enough for them to recognize the cut of the sails and the sweep of the sheer. They would have no suspicions.

He looked at the chart to get some idea of the depth in which the ships were anchored and then put it back in the drawer, motioned Aitken to stay and called to Renwick, the Marine lieutenant, who was just inspecting his file of Marines now drawn up at the after end of the quarterdeck. Even in the darkness the difference between the two men was striking: Renwick was stocky, round-faced and bustling. His every movement seemed military, like the jerkiness of a wooden puppet on strings. Aitken was slim and moved quietly - Ramage had no trouble imagining him stalking a deer in the hills of his native Perthshire, moving silently to avoid breaking a twig and always making sure he kept the animal to windward. Or even hanging silently over the bank of the Tay, reaching down into the chilly water to tickle a trout and knowing the water bailiff was close by.

Both Renwick and Aitken were brave men, one a fine soldier and the other a fine seaman. Both had sailed with Ramage for long enough to know that he hated gambling with his men's lives: he would take a chance when necessary but only after reducing the odds as much as possible. Many captains of frigates reckoned promotion depended on the size of the butcher's bill after a successful action - losing a third of their men killed could mean getting a larger and newer frigate, or even a pat on the back from the commander-in-chief.

One good thing about Mr Ramage, Renwick thought to himself, his last year in the West Indies had been quite fantastic - frigates and schooners captured, a whole French convoy seized, the surrender of the Dutch island of Curaçao taken and a Dutch frigate blown up - and all without losing more than about a dozen men killed. Mr Ramage himself had nearly been killed in the Dutch business, though; and the scars of the two other wounds still showed. Apart from those lucky captains capturing an enemy ship carrying bullion, few had made so much prize money as Mr Ramage in so short a time. All the Calypso'sofficers now had enough money put by in the Funds so that when the war ended (if it ever ended and if they survived it) they could retire and live comfortably. Every seaman, marine, petty officer, warrant and commission officer had more money than he had ever dreamed of. Mr Ramage always made sure that the prize agents he chose were honest. All too often one heard of a capture earning a lot of prize money, but when the division was made the prize agent had managed so many 'deductions' that he was the only one left satisfied.

The irony was that Mr Ramage was not really interested in prize money for himself. Too many captains (particularly of frigates) thought only of capturing the kind of enemy ships that yielded a good haul in prize money. Renwick had heard of several cases where they had avoided action with French men o' war, preferring to go after the rich merchantmen they were escorting. They were often tacitly encouraged by their commanders-in-chief. The 'commander-in-chief upon the station' and his second-in-command took an eighth of the total prize money, so that it was only human nature for an admiral to send his favourite young frigate captains cruising where they were most likely to take the prizes that would increase the wealth of both admiral and captains at no cost to the government. Indeed, both could always claim to be fighting the King's enemies.

At first Mr Ramage had been far from popular with the two commanders-in-chief under whom he had been serving in the Caribbean, at Jamaica and the Leeward Islands. They gave him the unpleasant jobs while sending their favourites after the prizes. But time and time again Mr Ramage had returned to port with rich prizes. It had been luck half the time, good planning the other. The commanders-in-chief had had to put a good face on it because although Mr Ramage was not a favourite, they had their share of the money . . .

Renwick listened carefully as the captain gave him his orders for the Marines. They were straightforward enough, and thank goodness it was going to be almost entirely a Marine action. There was nothing wrong with the Calypso's seamen, of course, but he found it very satisfying for the Marines to be left alone to do a job. With a sergeant, two corporals and thirty-two men, he had a reasonable force; more than enough for the job in hand. The sergeant, a corporal and sixteen men would go in the green cutter; himself, the other corporal and sixteen men in the red. No muskets, Mr Ramage was most emphatic about that, and Renwick had to admit he was probably right: muskets were clumsy weapons and for close-range work a pistol was easier to handle, quite as lethal, and just as accurate in a mêlée.

Aitken was thankful that Renwick had grasped Mr Ramage's plan so quickly, even though the captain seemed to be placing overmuch reliance on the Marines. They were good enough fellows, but he had never met one that was not possessed of three left feet the moment he climbed down into an open boat; and whose uniform was not covered with loops and beckets which caught the triggers or cocks of muskets or pistols and made them fire prematurely, or sent a cutlass clattering on a dark night, so that the enemy was alarmed and all surprise was lost. Brave enough fellows, but for an operation like this one he could not help thinking it was like sending a young bullock along a burn to stalk a wary deer.

At least Mr Ramage's plan was simple; that was the beauty of most of his plans. Double the number of details, Mr Ramage said, and you quadrupled the chance of mistakes. Men became excited going into action, and excited men had bad memories. Aitken had already learned an important lesson - never put a plan down in writing. By all means give written orders, otherwise officers might suspect their captain was trying to avoid responsibility if anything went wrong later, but if the plan was so complicated that its execution required to be written, it was too complicated. All too often the bulk of any plan had to be carried out by seamen and Marines who lacked nothing in courage or initiative but who might not be able to read or write. They acted instinctively; usually they could be relied on to do the sensible thing. But, as Southwick once said emphatically: 'Don't stitch up anything fancy.'

Ramage told Aitken: 'Orsini will command the red cutter and Jackson the green.' A moment later he added: 'You'd better send Rossi and Stafford in the red cutter, too.'

'Yes, sir. Young Orsini's got to get experience, but there's no need for him to take too many risks.'

'I'm not concerned with Orsini's personal risks,' Ramage said sharply, 'but he'll be responsible for eighteen Marines and the ten seamen at the oars.'

'Of course, sir,' Aitken said hurriedly, knowing Ramage's strict rule that Orsini should receive no favouritism. The Scot knew only too well that the result was very unfair on the lad because Orsini had a far harder time than any other young midshipman. But the nephew and heir to the ruler of the state of Volterra was cheerful, absurdly brave, quite useless at mathematics, apparently a natural seaman, and a favourite with most people on board. Southwick - old enough, as he said on one occasion when trying to din some mathematics into him, to be his great-grandfather - liked him, so did Alberto Rossi, the Genovese, an able seaman who kept his history in Genoa a secret (most people were sure that he had stabbed a man) but whose casual remarks from time to time gave glimpses of a lurid past. The man who had struggled through boyhood in the back streets of Genoa and the fourteen-year-old aristocrat who was the heir to a state, seemed to share the same practical approach to life. Perhaps it was really a practical approach to death.

'Very well, Mr Aitken, we'll heave-to now and have a good look round before we get the cutters hoisted out.'

Ten minutes later the Calypso was stopped in the water, her foretopsail and foretopgallant hauled round until the wind blew on the forward side, trying to push her bow one way while the wind on the after sails tried to push her bow round the other. Southwick had trimmed the sails so that the opposing thrusts were equal and the ship, balancing like a pair of scales with similar weights in each pan, sat on the water like a gull so that when the order was given the two cutters could be hoisted out by the stay tackles. Once in the water the boats were led aft and streamed astern, where both crews would wait by the rope ladders which were ready to be rolled down from the taffrail. The boats would be visible from the French ships, but it was not unusual for a frigate to tow a boat or two in reasonably calm water.

'We'll go in closer,' Ramage said. 'Half a mile.'

The moon was rising higher, making an ever-widening silver path to the French ships. Southwick gave the orders for the foreyards to be braced up; the sheets and braces were hauled home - there was very little weight on them - the tacks settled, and the water began chuckling under the Calypso's bow as the frigate gathered way again. On the fo'c'sle a group of men under the bosun were rousing out a cable and preparing an anchor.

As he watched through the nightglass for the moment when one of the two ships would be right in the path of the moonlight, Ramage tried yet again to distinguish the type. Was he taking all this trouble just for a couple of leaky galliots laden with casks of Marsala, or local craft from the Adriatic come round to the Tyrrhenian Sea collecting marble from Carrara, or delivering salt fish from Leghorn, or gunpowder from Toulon? He would know soon enough.

He could hear Aitken giving softly-spoken instructions to Paolo Orsini and Jackson concerning the two cutters, while behind him Renwick gave orders to the Marines in the kind of breathless bark he adopted when the men were on parade. Presumably having them drawn up in two ranks at the after end of the quarterdeck qualified them for the parade ground voice. Four seamen were dragging up a wooden chest of pistols for the Marines, and Aitken was making sure that each of the seamen who would be at the oars also had a pistol in his belt and a cutlass ready to put under the thwart, just in case.

The Calypso was gliding through the dark waters like a marauding shark: in the lee of Punta Ala the sea was almost flat and, now approaching the beach at an angle with the two anchored ships fine on the starboard bow, it seemed as though she was sliding diagonally across a narrow looking-glass reflecting the full moon. There was no sign of movement in either French ship; the sails on their yards were furled untidily and neither showed any lights. The two masters must be asleep by now, not carousing in their cabins.

Southwick ambled up, buckling on his huge meat-cleaver of a sword just as Jackson came out of the darkness and gave Ramage two pistols to tuck in his belt, and a seaman's cutlass. As the captain's coxswain, Jackson knew that Ramage had no time for what he called 'fancy swords'. If there was going to be hand-to-hand fighting, and the two scars over the captain's right eyebrow (which he rubbed when puzzled or angry) showed he spoke from experience, fancy swords were useless.

Вы читаете The Ramage Touch
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату