Noting Poitier's presence, the first lieutenant said: 'May I report to you privately, sir?'

Damn! Ramage had spent some time leading up to the right moment - creating it, in fact - when he would confront Poitier and force the secret of the expedition out of him. Now Aitken had arrived at the wrong moment. Yet Aitken would not have intruded unless. . . Ramage picked up his hat and followed the Scotsman from the cabin, telling the sentry to latch back the door and keep an eye on the prisoner.

Halfway up the companionway Ramage hissed up at Aitken: 'What's happened?'

'That xebec, sir: Wagstaffe's sent it. Orsini's brought news of what happened at Porto Ercole.'

Ramage stopped climbing. 'What happened that we don't know about?'

'Well, nothing really important, sir,' Aitken said lamely. 'I just thought -'

'Very well, tell Orsini to wait: I want half an hour with this French officer ...'

Aitken acknowledged the order and Ramage went down the companionway, apologized to a startled Poitier for the interruption, and sat down at his desk after dropping his hat on the settee once again.

'We were discussing your orders,' he reminded Poitier, 'and you claimed you were on a routine cruise.'

'Yes,' Poitier said, obviously becoming bored, as well as tired and shaky from his leg wound. 'A routine cruise. We'd sighted nothing; we needed wood and water . . .'

'Why choose Porto Ercole and not a large port like Leghorn?'

'Light winds,' Poitier said smoothly. 'It would have taken days -'

'But you arrived off Argentario from the direction of Leghorn,' Ramage interrupted. 'I saw you.'

'That is true,' Poitier admitted. 'I like Porto Ercole. The wine, plenty of wild boar from the Maremma, as much fresh water and wood as we need . . .' The Frenchman's voice had a confidential note, as though he was confessing to Ramage that he had a weakness for roast boar.

Ramage nodded understandingly but then the Frenchman saw his eyes narrow, the skin over his cheeks and nose tautening, and his left hand slap down three or four times on some papers, the heavy signet ring on the little finger banging on the desk top. 'Admiral, you were engaged in some secret operation. I want to know what it was.'

Poitier held out his hands, palms upwards. 'Yes, I admit it, of course. The bomb ketches give that away. The details I do not know: they were secret, you understand - probably only the Minister of Marine and a few others would know the details. Nothing was in writing - except for assembling some of the ships. Only the senior army commanders and the admirals received verbal orders about the destination. You do the same in England.'

Ramage did not bother to contradict him; there was no point in telling him that the details of most secret operations were usually the talk of fashionable London drawing rooms for days and weeks beforehand. The idea of a secret operation being mounted from Britain was almost ludicrous, unless only one or two ships were involved.

'Nevertheless, because your role in this operation is now over, Admiral, I should be interested to know what it was.'

Poitier eased his wounded leg and nodded. 'Yes, I suppose there can be no harm in telling you: the seamen in all three frigates knew - the regular ship gossip, of course. We were to embark cavalry, infantry and artillery at Porto Ercole and carry them elsewhere. We were doing that when my - when your,' he corrected himself, 'bomb ketches attacked.'

'Where were you to transport them?'

Poitier shrugged his shoulders most convincingly. 'I do not know: I was expecting a messenger hourly from the Minister in Paris with further orders. He had not arrived when you attacked.'

Ramage saw that the Frenchman had been quick with his story and it was convincing enough for Poitier to be able to keep to it. The messenger from Paris . . . delayed as the frigates prepared to sail... so likely, so readily understood by an enemy officer. Poitier might be feeling weary and his leg might hurt, but he was thinking quickly and clearly. Very well, the pressure must be applied; another turn taken up on the rack.

Ramage said quickly but firmly, his fingers tapping on the papers as though it was a nervous habit: 'I must know your ultimate destination, Admiral. It affects the safety of my country and the lives of my countrymen.'

'I am sorry I cannot help you, Lord Ramage,' Poitier said regretfully. 'I am a prisoner and no further use to my own country, but I was told so little.'

The Frenchman had changed in the last few minutes - from the time that Aitken had come in. His complexion was less grey, his face less lined, and he was sitting upright in the chair now, as though this was his cabin and Ramage merely a tiresome visitor. Ramage felt instinctively that the longer he kept the admiral sitting there in the armchair the less chance he had of wringing any secrets out of him. The Frenchman's confidence had imperceptibly returned. Now was the time for gentle threats - and perhaps some that were not so gentle.

'I have no wish to be burdened with so many prisoners,' Ramage said conversationally, 'so I am proposing to land all of you at Porto Ercole, providing each of you signs the usual agreement not to serve again until regularly exchanged. You agree to that?'

Poitier nodded eagerly, wincing as the movement jerked his leg. 'Yes, of course. It is generous of you. You can go into Porto Ercole under a flag of truce.'

'Very well, we shall do that. However, there is one small question. Small for me,' he said, tapping the papers again, 'but of more consequence for you.'

Poitier looked at him warily. 'What is it? I've agreed to the exchange - which takes nearly three hundred prisoners off your hands. They could rise and take your ship.'

'They could not,' Ramage said shortly. 'We rescued them from drowning, but any sign that they are not suitably grateful means that they get a whiff of canister shot fired into the middle of them. No, I was thinking of your own particular position.'

'My own position? Well, if I sign an exchange agreement, presumably you will put me on shore with the rest. You will have my parole.'

'Yes,' Ramage said carefully, 'and at the moment, only two people know that you did not dispose of your most secret papers - you, and me.'

Poitier went white, making a curious grasping movement with his hands, as though afraid he would fall from the chair. 'What . . . what do you mean?'

'If your Minister of Marine and Colonies knew that you had not destroyed these papers - even though the Furet had been overtaken by an enemy ship, had hauled down her colours and was sinking - I think we know what would happen to you. You recognize them' - he held them up and when he had put them down he reached for the box and held it up, '- and the weighted box? Bottom right-hand drawer of your desk?'

When Poitier made no answer Ramage said: 'The guillotine, I imagine.'

Poitier nodded dumbly. 'Yes, they would suspect a plot. Collusion, in fact. My family in Britanny would be punished. Our land would be confiscated. There would be no end to it.'

'Exactly,' Ramage said, hating what he was having to do but knowing that he had no choice. 'That young lieutenant of yours knows nothing and suspects nothing. I presume the captain disposed of his papers?'

'I don't know,' Poitier admitted. 'I did not see him, but anyway it hardly matters now - he is dead and the ship is sunk and obviously you do not have them. Had I seen him throwing them over the side it would have reminded me, but the ship was beginning to sink so fast and you were so close in our wake ... we were concerned -'

'With staying alive,' Ramage interrupted with deliberate cruelty, trying to make it easier for Poitier to agree to what he was about to propose. 'A broadside pour l'honneur du pavilion and then a hurried surrender.'

'It was not like that,' Poitier protested. 'We had to bear up to slow the ship - her speed was ripping away the planks . . .'

Ramage shrugged. 'You will have to convince your minister about that, not me. But the affair of the secret papers - that is the thing which could send you to the guillotine.'

'Will send me to the guillotine,' Poitier said.

'Yes, if it becomes known in Paris I am sure it will.'

Poitier glanced up at the word 'if', caught Ramage's eye and said frankly: 'You are offering me some kind of exchange? What can I bargain with?'

'You can have all these papers -' Ramage pushed them towards him across the top of the desk, '- in exchange for one piece of information. Once I have it, you will be free to go out to the quarter gallery and throw them over the side. Or you can put them in your pocket.'

'What piece of information ?' Poitier blurted out.

'What is that 'special service'?'

Poitier's head dropped and his eyes closed. For a moment Ramage thought he had fainted. With a great effort he pulled himself together, sat upright and, looking directly at Ramage, said: 'There is no 'special service' now. I doubt if you will believe me but it has been cancelled. One of the minister's aides came to tell me, and the fleet -' he broke off, as if deciding to keep the rest secret.

Ramage pulled the documents back across the desk and began straightening them up, so that their top edges were level. 'I think you had better prepare yourself for the guillotine, Admiral. I'm sorry.'

Poitier looked Ramage straight in the eye. 'There is no reason why you should believe me, but I hope you will listen for a moment. The 'special service' is cancelled - not just postponed but cancelled - so I suppose there is nothing treasonable in my telling you about it.

'A fleet was being assembled in Toulon and Cartagena - there were to be several Spanish ships of the line accompanying us, but no Spanish troops - with transports. Troops were collecting from all over France, but to make up the required strength it was decided to use some forces from the Army of Italy - the men I was to collect at Porto Ercole. They were stationed at various places in the local province - at Grosseto, I think the town was called.

'As you have read in those letters, I was to sail from Toulon with three frigates, meet two bomb ketches at Porto Ercole, embark all these soldiers, and then sail for the rendezvous with the fleet.'

Ramage held up his hand. 'Where was the rendezvous?'

'At Candia. The fleet was to have sailed for Crete soon after me, although it was due to arrive there first, because I was expected to lose time embarking the troops at Porto Ercole - the army,' he said without malice, 'is rarely punctual.'

He paused for a moment, as though collecting his thoughts. Or, Ramage realized, hurriedly making up more of a story, or ornamenting it. Up to now the story rang true though: certainly it seemed likely, and it was borne out by the letters.

'Where was I? Oh yes, the rendezvous at Candia. That was arranged, and according to the orders I had already received my three frigates provisioned and watered in Toulon for three months. You understand that provisions are difficult to obtain in France these days, and I had a struggle to get even a small amount of cordage and canvas to have as a reserve. I still had to get the extra month's provisions for the troops we were to embark in Porto Ercole.

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