Ramage slipped the wide leather band of the cutlass belt diagonally over his shoulder, obeying his own orders that when the ship went to general quarters officers should wear swords and at least one pistol. The quickest way to encourage seamen and petty officers to take short cuts or ignore captain's standing orders was for them to see their captain or officers doing it. It was a typical moonlit Mediterranean night with a gentle breeze turning the sea into hammered pewter. As Ramage looked across the bay, with the Tuscan hills and mountains beyond like petrified waves, it seemed a time for lovers. Instead the Calypsos were within minutes of the time for duplicity and perhaps death. If they were lucky, the duplicity would save lives - their own and the enemy's. Ramage shrugged his shoulders: he knew from bitter experience that a captain becoming too obsessed with saving the lives of his own men could act timidly and ignore one of the most important rules of war - that the boldest move was often the safest.

'About three quarters of a mile to go, sir,' Aitken murmured, recognizing that Captain Ramage was absorbed in his own thoughts.

Ramage blinked, looked ahead and lifted his nightglass once again. He made a tiny adjustment in the focus. He was beginning to have a suspicion of what those two ships were, even though they seemed to be hanging upside down, ready at any moment to drop silently into some dark pit.

In the meantime he needed only topsails to manoeuvre: the topgallants could be furled. He gave the order to Aitken and a few moments later topmen were scrambling up the ratlines and out along the topgallant yards high overhead. Sheets and tacks were eased, yards braced to spill the wind, and the quartermaster gave quick orders to the men at the wheel to compensate.

By now the Calypso was sailing along almost parallel to one end of the great semi-lune of beach towards the two ships lying head to wind at anchor, fine on the starboard bow. The wind - still little more than a breeze in here - was broad on the beam, so the frigate could stretch along comfortably. There was plenty of water; the Frenchmen were anchored in at least six fathoms, and there were three and four fathoms to within a hundred yards of the shore.

Then, like a pickpocket leaving a crowd, the idea that had been lurking at the back of his mind, crowded in there but mercifully not lost, managed to slip out. He examined it carefully, as a parson might consider a subject for next Sunday's sermon; he looked across at the anchored ships and the gap between them. He knew the depth of water in which they were anchored; he guessed that by now the Calypso would be in sight of them if they had any lookouts.

Tense at the quarterdeck rail and looking over the whole forward part of the Calypso, he could now see every detail in the moonlight. His men were standing to the guns, with tubs of water between them ready for mops to be soaked, the trigger lanyards were coiled on the breeches like springs, the topsails were drawing well with just enough wind to press them into gentle curves with the silver of the moonlight making the cloth of the sails look white instead of the warm sepia and raw umber of Admiralty flax. The waist was clearer now, with the two cutters which had been stowed there towing astern.

There was only one question, which was how deeply did drunken men sleep, and the answer to that was it depended how deeply they had drunk. He could only guess that French seamen after a few days' beating in light airs would, the moment they were safely anchored in a secure lee like Punta Ala, drink deeply. Anyway, he found his mind was made up, and it meant scrapping entirely his plan and cancelling the orders he had already given. Later he might be accused of risking his men's lives in a joke - that would be if he failed.

He called to Aitken, Renwick and Southwick, explained what he intended trying to do, and after the three men had considered it for a few moments, he knew they liked the idea. From the point of view of discipline it mattered not at all whether they liked it or not, but Ramage had long ago learned that men put their hearts into a plan they liked, whereas only their bodies went into something in which they did not have much confidence.

Southwick, although the oldest of the trio, was always the one who was first to accept some unusual idea, and just as Ramage had guessed, Renwick was the last to see the merits of this one. Hardly surprising, Ramage admitted, since it took whatever glory there might be away from Renwick's Marines ...

The three men left Ramage at the rail and moved about the ship, giving new orders. As he stood there alone, draped in his boatcloak, he listened idly as the bow wave chuckled under the cutwater. It was a chuckling: Ramage could always imagine a group of small boys down there chuckling away at some trick they had played. The ship seemed to be happy at this comfortable progress and wanted to share the fun.

The French vessels were approaching fast, or rather the Calypso was approaching them quickly. No lights, no sudden shouts, no startled challenges - either the Frenchmen were all asleep or it was a well-planned trap. Which was it?

They were asleep, he decided. They were damned odd ships, and all the men were asleep, snoring in that strangled and staccato way of men who had been drunk when they toppled into their hammocks. They seemed to have less than six gun ports a side. Yet dare he risk what Their Lordships would regard as an irresponsible joke if it failed? Always the second thoughts ... It would do the Calypsos good. They had somehow lost the edge they had had in the West Indies. It was not slackness - they still reefed and furled as though an admiral was watching -  it was rather that they were slowly losing their zest. There was less skylarking now, fewer jokes, a heavier atmosphere. This was true of their captain, too, Ramage admitted; he too found the Mediterranean chilly and damp after the tropics. The moonlight view over the Calypso's bow was some compensation: the sea and landscape combined looked like a painting by an artist, one of the more imaginative of the early Italians who fully understood that strange and (if you have not seen it) unbelievable Tuscan light and managed to capture it.


The Calypso seemed to be gathering speed in the moonlight but he knew it was an illusion: time was playing tricks, as it always did when there was a whiff of danger in the air. Sometimes it speeded up and at others it slowed down. This time it was speeding up. Ramage watched the dogvanes, a string of corks on a stick, each cork with white feathers stuck into it. Flying from above the hammock nettings, they were fluttering just enough to show that the breeze, which was even more fitful in the lee of the cone-shaped peak called Peroni, was still from the south. Perhaps it was an offshore breeze distorted by the mountains because the sky looked settled enough, with no hint of a sirocco.

The two vessels, lying near the beach at the end of their anchor cables, were like cattle standing almost side by side facing the hedge and waiting to be milked. Two hundred yards to go to the first one and the Calypso was moving almost silently: the occasional creak of the rudder, the squeak of a sheet or brace rendering through a block, the unavoidable flap of a sail, like a massive dowager puffing out a candle.

Ramage stared at the space between the two ships, now on the starboard bow, estimated it at two hundred yards, and held up a warning finger to the quartermaster, who hissed towards the men at the wheel to attract their attention. Southwick was now standing on the fo'c'sle, facing aft and watching Ramage, whose shadowy figure he could see through the network of cordage made by the rigging. Men stood by at every port lid, holding the lanyard that would trice it up, allowing the guns to be run out. The Marines, instead of waiting at the taffrail to stream down the rope ladders into the cutters, were now lined up on either side of the quarterdeck, ready to act as sharpshooters. The plan was all changed but the Calypso was ready.

One hundred yards ... seventy-five ... fifty ... you needed to know precisely the turning circle of your ship when only the rudder was acting... twenty-five yards and Aitken was glancing sideways at him: he could just see the movement out of the corner of his eye ... ten yards: then he snapped the order to the quartermaster and the great wheel began to spin as the men clawed down at the spokes.

The Calypso, her sails starting to flap but the yards creaking as they were braced sharp up, began to turn to starboard, heading straight for the beach and for the gap between the two anchored French ships. Not a word was being spoken; language might not have been invented as far as the Calypso was concerned.

As the frigate carried her way and glided in a curve towards the gap between the two French ships, Ramage watched carefully while the foretopsail was backed, the yard being hauled round so that the wind now blew on the forward side, slowing down the ship instead of driving her forward.

He continued watching as the Calypso's stem came level between the two French ships and the frigate continued her glide towards the beach. Was she making a knot now? Barely, and slowing down fast. She would stop in just about the right place - there, she had: the bowsprits of the two ships were just abaft each quarter of the Calypso, and he could see Southwick gesticulating to the boatswain at the starboard bower anchor: it was already hanging down only a few feet above the water. Suddenly it was let go and the cable began racing out, and within moments Ramage smelled scorching from the friction of the rope against the wooden rim of the hawsehole.

By now Aitken was standing beside the binnacle to give whispered instructions to the men at the wheel because as the cable ran free the foretopsail remained aback, pushing the Calypso astern and reversing the action of the rudder. The bows of most ships paid off to leeward as they anchored and Ramage wanted to be careful not to alarm (or intimidate) the French ships by getting the Calypso stuck athwart the bow of either of them, causing a splintering crash which would smash the bowsprit and jibboom.

Now men aloft were furling the maintopsail, leaving only the foretopsail moving the Calypso astern, and at that moment Southwick on the fo'c'sle gave the order for the cable to be snubbed, digging the anchor in by dragging on it and forcing one of the flukes down into the sandy bottom.

Ramage had told Aitken and Southwick that he would be listening to the French ships, rather than watching them. In fact he had done both because the whole operation had, so far, gone very smoothly. But listen as carefully as he might there had been no hail, no challenge, no shouted question - nor any greeting, for that matter: it was as though both vessels were deserted.

The Calypso's anchor was holding, and at a signal from one of the lieutenants close to Southwick, topmen swarmed along the yard and furled the foretopsail as the Calypso came back on the full scope of her cable to lie abreast the two French ships. From the shore the Calypso must look like a large dog with a half grown but plump pup on each side.

Aitken came up to Ramage and said softly: 'It's almost unbelievable, sir. I'd have thought that at least the splash of the anchor would rouse 'em out.' He shook his head. 'They must be sodden with the wine,' he pronounced. Coming from Aitken, being sodden with the wine was akin to standing in the antechamber to Hell with Lucifer topping up the glasses.

While Ramage examined the vessel to larboard with his nightglass, still trying to decide why both the masts were set so far aft, Aitken looked over the other one. Ramage could see no sign of movement but just as Aitken gave a warning hiss, a sudden intake of breath, Ramage turned to see a man at the taffrail of the ship to starboard. The man seemed to be trying to scramble over the taffrail, as though making a hurried escape, but he paused after a few moments and began relieving himself. He then hiccupped and went to turn forward to return again whence he came, but in turning he caught sight of the Calypso's great bulk almost alongside and lurched to the main shrouds, holding on to one of the ropes as if it was all that stopped him falling over the edge of a cliff. After a couple of minutes' bleary inspection he asked in French, his voice slurred and barely raised above conversation level: 'When did you arrive?'

'Half an hour ago,' Ramage answered in French. 'Is the captain asleep ?'

'I am the captain,' the man said, struggling with his dignity as he swayed.

'I look forward to your company,' Ramage said. 'For dinner tomorrow, perhaps? I have a saddle of lamb that might interest you ...'

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