'Then the minister's aide arrived in Porto Ercole yesterday, while we were loading troops, with the news that the whole operation had been cancelled. The admiral was told that half his ships of the line (five out of eleven) were to be laid up in ordinary, and all the seamen from those five ships with less than a year's experience at sea were to be handed over to the army.

'The orders for myself were that I should pick up the troops in Porto Ercole as arranged, and proceed to Candia. There I was to land the troops, who were to take up garrison duties in the island. The two bomb ketches were to remain there to give some protection to what is otherwise a poorly defended anchorage. Having escorted the bomb ketches and disembarked the troops, I was to return to Toulon with the frigates.'

Ramage asked: 'Where was the fleet to land this army?'

Poitier paused for a good minute, obviously weighing up his answer. Finally he said: 'I cannot tell you. You could guess. There is only one place for which Bonaparte might again consider risking an army and a fleet.'

Again? Ramage realized that Poitier wanted him to guess. 'Egypt? Where he's already lost an army and a fleet?'

Poitier looked away and in his own mind had not mentioned the word. 'The point of the great rendezvous of the fleet in Candia was that we did not think you British would look there, should you learn that we were assembling ships.'

Ramage was about to comment that the Calypso comprised about the entire British force in the Mediterranean but held his tongue and gathered up the secret papers. 'The letter cancelling the main operation and the orders that you should carry on to Candia are not here.'

Poitier looked startled, as though just discovering a theft. But he was also quite clearly trying to remember something. Suddenly he began taking a few folded papers from a trouser pocket. He sorted through them and found letters which were still folded.

Poitier pulled them out with a smile on his face. 'These were given me by the minister's aide yesterday: I forgot to put them away with all the other papers, otherwise you would have read them. They belong with the others. Perhaps you will allow me ...' With that Poitier tucked them under the pile, so that they were in date order.

Ramage, admiring the man's subtlety, picked up the pile again. The extra letters were bloodstained and creased.

'Assure yourself of their genuineness and then read them,' Poitier said.

Ramage took the first one and examined the seal again, holding the paper against the light to see the watermark, although given the circumstances in which he had obtained the papers, there could be no trickery. He unfolded the letter and read it. Blood had dried across one corner but had not blurred the writing.

It was a copy of a letter from the War Minister himself and addressed to General Bruiton, commanding the French forces at Candia. It said that the attempt on Egypt, of which he had been apprised and for which he had been ordered to prepare provisions and fresh water, had been cancelled, and instructed him what to do with his ships and men. However, because General Bruiton's force had suffered such losses from sickness and desertion in Crete, the troops at present embarked in the vessels commanded by Admiral Poitier were to be landed in Candia to form part of the garrison. The two bomb ketches were to remain at Candia and form part of its defences, the navy instructing the army in the use of the mortars, and once this was done the crews of the two vessels would be put on board 'whichever of the frigates Admiral Poitier specified'.

Ramage read the letter a second time. Yes, this would be the way the minister would inform people like Poitier. He reached out for the second document, addressed to Poitier and from the Minister of Marine. It said, almost word for word, what Poitier had related - that he was to take his force to Candia.

Poitier had been honest. Ramage slid the documents back into the pile. 'I have to leave this cabin for a few minutes.' He walked over to the door of the quarter gallery to starboard and pushed it open before going out through the main door, acknowledging the sentry's salute.

Egypt, he thought; Bonaparte must be off his head. At any rate, the drunken artillery colonel need no longer worry about sand.

As Ramage climbed the companionway he remembered bitterly what the French major had known in the prison cell at Orbetello: that information was only valuable if it could be passed on to someone in a position to make use of it. By a combination of luck and blackmail, he had discovered that the French were, at least until a few days ago, assembling a fleet and an army to invade Egypt. The only way he could warn the Admiralty was to sail the Calypso a thousand miles to Gibraltar, and that involved abandoning the most potentially exciting orders he had ever received. The alternative was to send one of the bomb ketches with the news. But it would take weeks to get there ... He admitted that the Admiralty would be justified in bringing him to trial for allowing such delay. . .


As Ramage stepped out on deck, almost dazzled by the sunshine, he saw a small xebec lying astern, a line serving as a painter leading out through a stern chase port and made fast round her mast. The lateen yard, with its furled sail, was curved like a bow. The hull had not seen a coat of paint for a couple of years but like most of her type she was fast.

He was just turning to go to the rail, expecting to find Aitken, when he almost bumped into a small figure with a cutlass belt across his shoulder and giving a salute that made up in keenness what it lacked in martial correctness.

'Report from Mr Wagstaffe, sir,' Paolo Orsini said, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. 'He gave me command of the xebec, and I have Jackson as my second-in-command, and -'

'You made a fast passage: we were watching you.' Ramage interrupted briskly. 'Where is the report from Mr Wagstaffe?'

Paolo looked embarrassed and Ramage, noticing everyone within earshot had stopped whatever he was doing, said: 'A verbal report?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Good news?'

'Oh yes, sir, very!'

'Out with it then!'

'Well sir, we captured the second frigate! We cut her out of Porto Ercole. Well, perhaps not cut her out because all the French had bolted, but we towed her out and anchored her out of range of any shore guns.'

'Congratulations,' Ramage said, and added with a smile: 'In fact it is the third frigate.'

Paolo looked puzzled, and Ramage realized that Jackson, Stafford and Rossi were standing nearby. 'The first was the one we blew up with the mortar shell, the second -'

'Was the one we sank an hour ago,' Ramage interrupted. 'So the one you've towed out is the third.'

Paolo now looked very disappointed, as though only the two bomb ketches had a right to sink frigates in these waters and that ships like the Calypso were little better than poachers.

Ramage gestured to Southwick and Aitken to join them. 'Mr Orsini brings news from Mr Wagstaffe: they've towed out the third frigate and anchored it out of possible range of the batteries.'

'Hah! Three out of three,' Southwick exclaimed. 'But Mr Orsini doesn't seem pleased. Is anything wrong? A lot of men killed?' The old master reminded him of everyone's favourite grandfather, always fussing over the grandchildren.

Ramage raised his eyebrows questioningly, and when Paolo shook his head he said: 'Mr Orsini thinks the bomb ketches had a lien on the three frigates, and I believe he regards us as poachers over the Furet. You'd better tell him.'

Southwick gave a great bellow of laughter and Ramage joined in when he saw the startled expressions on the faces of Paolo, Jackson, Stafford and Rossi.

'The Furet,' Southwick explained, 'can be shared between the bomb ketches - unless you know which one exploded a shell in her wake as she came out of Porto Ercole.'

'Did that sink her, sir?' Jackson asked disbelievingly. 'No. In fact we had a long chase after her - right down to here. But for a long time we just could not overhaul her enough to let go the broadsides. Then Mr Ramage noticed something - you remember both bomb ketches were sailing down by the bow as we came down to Argentario, and what he shouted to you to do?'

The four nodded their heads vigorously.

'Well, this was the first time that the Calypso has had a trial of sailing against a sister ship, and although she wasn't drawing ahead, we weren't overhauling. Leastways, not until Mr Ramage spotted that both of us - the Furet and the Calypso – were griping too much, even though we had stunsails set only on one side. He spotted why and cured it in the Calypso, with the result that we suddenly started overhauling the Furet.

'They tried to drive her faster - but although that mortar shell of yours hadn't done any damage that showed when she was driven hard, as soon as they tried extra hard - or it may have been a coincidence: I reckon it was - she sprung a plank or two, and the tremendous pressure of water just opened her up, like peeling a banana. She luffed up - we thought to engage us, of course - and we both got off a few broadsides, but she sank . . .'

By now Orsini was grinning, but Ramage suddenly remembered Gibraltar. Perhaps he could leave the bomb ketches to carry out his orders. Even stay with them and send Aitken in the Calypso to Gibraltar with a despatch. No, the Admiralty would not stand for that. He half heard something Paolo had said to Aitken.

'What was that about the frigate?'

'The one we towed out, sir: I was saying that she's hardly damaged.'

'But there was wreckage hanging from her masts and yards when we passed - some of it seemed to be burning.'

'Yes, sir, but once we had her anchored, we cleared most of that while we were getting the xebec ready.'

'Do you mean to say this frigate - the one you towed out - is seaworthy?'

'Oh yes, sir: Mr Wagstaffe told me particularly to tell you he'd have her ready for sea by the time you returned to Porto Ercole. By noon tomorrow, anyway.'

'Thank you,' Ramage said sarcastically. 'So far telling me about it had slipped your memory.'

'Sorry, sir,' the boy said. 'Might we have a drink of water, sir? We had no time to get water or provisions before we sailed to try to catch you up.'

Ramage nodded to Aitken.

'Get them fed - I have to go below to write a report to the commander-in-chief at Gibraltar. Tell Renwick to send a Marine to guard the French admiral and then you join me in my cabin. Orsini, what's the name of this other frigate?'

Ramage signed the despatch, found the ink was drying fast from the heat so that he did not need the sandshaker, and then looked up at Aitken. 'Well, I'm sorry

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