As he had hoped, the Frenchman took the bait. 'I am at your service, m'sieur, but we have to sail south at daylight,' he said vaguely, adding: 'We are several days late with these light winds. Have you found any winds to the north? I mean the south.'

'I've come from the north,' Ramage said. 'I must have been close behind you. I couldn't see any point in continuing to chase after puffs of wind, so I decided to anchor in the lee here and wait for the weather to change.'

'It's never going to change,' the Frenchman said gloomily, his voice becoming more slurred. 'Becalmed . . . we're all becalmed . . . sleeping close to the beach . . .'

His voice died away and now Ramage could not see the man any more: he must have quietly subsided on the deck. But his voice had not roused anyone else.

Ramage saw Southwick coming up the quarterdeck ladder, white hair flowing in the moonlight and seeming silver. He was still wearing his sword but from the grin on his face he must have guessed the last part of the conversation with the Frenchman.

'I can't see them getting under way at daylight, sir,' the master said cheerfully. 'Their heads will be throbbing so badly they'll think it's drums beating to quarters! Shall we send away our boarders?'

Ramage had been considering it carefully. He pictured Renwick and his Marines trying to force twenty or thirty drunken Frenchmen to wake up, stand upright, and then climb down into a boat to be ferried over to the Calypso as prisoners. It would be like trying to shovel up smoke.

'No. I think we'll wait for the Frenchmen to wake up. They'll have such bad headaches, they'll think they've been wounded. Trying to get them under control now means sobering 'em up ... they'll be falling over like skittles. A really drunken one may want to fight. They'll wake up eventually and find a French frigate between them.'

Aitken gave a dry laugh. 'Aye - the Calypso looks French enough and they won't be able to see the name on the transom anyway. I'll tell the men not to shout, so the Frenchmen won't hear any English.'

Ramage nodded when asked if the men should stay at general quarters, with permission to sleep beside the guns.

At number six gun on the starboard side, sitting down on the deck below the level of the bulwark and with his back resting against the carriage, a Cockney seaman, Will Stafford, was finding a ready audience for his stories about three people, Captain Lord Ramage, the Marchesa di Volterra, and her nephew, Paolo Orsini, serving as a midshipman in the Calypso.

'Yers,' he said with an airy wave of an arm towards the north-east, 'all that land over there belongs to the Marchesa, and if she don't 'ave no sons, then 'er nevvy, Mr Orsini, inherits the lot. When we get it back from Bonaparte, o' course.'

'What akshully 'appened, Staff?' inquired one of the seamen who knew something of the legend but realized he now had a chance of hearing the true story from Stafford. If not the true story, then one which would pass for true once the trimmings had been removed, like pulling off the outer leaves of a cabbage.

'With the Marchesa? Oh, we rescued 'er,' the Cockney said matter-of-factly. 'Jackson, the Capting, a few others and me. This 'ere Bonaparte was marching 'is army down Italy and the Marchesa - she rules this state of Volterra, yer know - she an' some uvvers was escaping. Our frigate was sent to rescue 'er, got sunk by a French ship o' the line, and Mr Ramage - he was the only orficer left alive - took us in one of the boats to finish the job. Rescue the Marchesa, I mean.'

'Is it true she's very beautiful?'

'My oath,' Stafford exclaimed, and for a moment it seemed he might be at a loss for words, but he managed to get a grip on himself. 'Well, she's about five feet 'igh, long black 'air, the air of an empress when she feels like it, she teases everybody, always seems to be laughing and her face - well, it ain't beautiful like they 'ave in paintings; it's - well, she's all that a woman should be only she's the only one I've ever seen who akshully is.'

'Where's she now, then? Where'd you take her after you rescued her in the boat?'

'Oh, all that's too long a story for now, but she's living with the Capting's family in Cornwall.'

''E's supposed to be in love with 'er, ain't 'e?' another seaman asked.

' 'E is,' Stafford said firmly. ' 'E don't seem ter be doin' much abart it yet, but -' he lowered his voice and tapped his nose with his index finger '- there's problems. One is she's a Catholic, I think. The other is 'is father, the admiral. 'E's the Earl of Blazey, and when 'e dies the Capting inherits the title and a big estate.'

'What's that got to do wiv 'im marrying this Marchesa?' the seaman persisted.

'I dunno,' Stafford admitted frankly, lost in the aristocracy of Volterra and of the United Kingdom. 'All I know is, if it was me I wouldn't 'esitate. She still remembers us - whenever she writes to the Capting, she mentions me an' Rossi, an' Jackson an' Mr Southwick. Funny, she speaks ever so good English but she can't get 'is name right; 'Souswick' it was at the start and 'Souswick' it remains.'

'Where did all this rescuing 'appen, then?'

'Why, just down the coast 'ere a few miles. There's a big sort of island - well, it's not a real island, 'cos a couple o' causeways join it to the mainland - but just beyond, on the coast, there's a tower. We picked 'er up there.'

'So yer been along this bit o' the coast. But what are we doin' 'ere, Staff? Ain't many o' our ships around, not from wot they said in Gibraltar . . .'

'Why, the Capting knows this coast like the back of 'is 'and,' Stafford said contemptuously, baffled that anyone could be stupid enough to ask such a question, but unable to deal with two aitches in succession. ' 'E speaks the lingo, and that's why we got these orders,' he added mysteriously.

'Wot orders, Staff?' At that moment Rossi joined the group, just in time to hear Stafford's answer.

'My oath, you chaps don't know nothink. Our orders are to capture or sink every French or Spanish ship we find. We got to make a bleedin' nuisance o' ourselves, like a fox in an 'en run.'

'Well, we've 'ad it quiet enough all the way up from the Gut,' another seaman said. 'We seemed to be keeping away from the Spanish coast to avoid trouble, not make it.'

'Ah, that's just it,' Stafford said triumphantly, accidentally guessing that it had been part of Ramage's orders. 'We got to get well into the Mediterranington afore we start cutting up rough. That way it takes longer for the Frogs and the Dons to get the glad news and send ships from Cartagena and Toulon, and it gives us more time to break the crockery.'

'I say, Staff,' said a timid voice, 'do they 'ave poisonous snakes 'ere?'

'Snakes?' Stafford exclaimed scornfully but stumped for a moment. 'Why, they 'ave 'em ten feet long. Not all of them are poisonous,' he added reassuringly. 'Some just bite and crush the bone.'

'Accidente!' Rossi commented calmly, 'what a liar you are, Staff. If only you sing like you tell stories - ah, the opera we should have. La Scala would be the nothing by comparison!'

'La Scala?' Stafford asked suspiciously.

'An opera house in Milan,' Rossi explained. 'They sing there.'

'Yus, they do in opera 'ouses in England, too,' Stafford said sarcastically.

'Belay all that talking,' a boatswain's mate growled, his interest now waning, 'you're at general quarters.'

An hour later, with the Calypso lying to her anchor cable and occasionally swinging gently in unison with the vessel on each side as the breeze changed direction slightly, Ramage stood on the quarterdeck alone with his thoughts, the ship's officers purposely keeping clear of him and the men lying beside the carronades remaining silent.

The Calypso seemed to envelop him: the decks beneath his feet, the masts overhead, the guns loaded and with scores of men waiting beside them. The ship was silent and there was no movement, yet it needed only one shout from him and thirty-six guns and the carronades would be blasting the darkness.

It was all here, he marvelled; the contradictions of peace and war. The moonlight sparkled like idly tossed diamonds as a wave curled up lazily on the sandy beach; the cone-shaped peak of Peroni stood a thousand feet high like a Tuscan symbol, and farther round and twice as high, one segment dark in the moon shadow, was Ballone and beyond was Alma, within a few feet of the same height. And forming the background were the Apennines. He was back in Italy and it seemed as unreal as a dream.

As they approached the anchored vessels Southwick had murmured, 'It was somewhere near here that you rescued the Marchesa, wasn't it, sir?' and he had grunted a bare acknowledgment. But of course it was nearby; just a score miles or so along the coast.

Southwick, like the rest of them - Stafford, Rossi and Jackson - was always waiting to hear that he and Gianna had become engaged. They did not know enough to realize that the answer was obvious: Gianna, Marchesa di Volterra, was the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Volterra. When this long and damnable war ended and the French were driven out of Italy, she would return to rule her people. How would they feel if she came back married to a straniero ? Curious that in Italian the nearest word one could get to 'foreigner' was 'stranger'. To an Italian a straniero was anyone who came from somewhere else - another village, another province, another country: someone who was not of the same place as the speaker and, by inference, not to be trusted.

Gianna did not accept the existence of these difficulties, of course; Volterra would accept him because, Mama Mia, he would be the husband of the Marchesa . . . There were religious difficulties as well, but. . .

He shivered because that part of his personal future was uncertain; possibly insoluble. Anyway, for the moment he was within yards of his second home.

Second? Where was his first? Presumably England in general and Cornwall in particular. Yet if he was honest with himself - and being anchored like this in the lee of Punta Ala, having just nosed round Elba, was as good a time as any to be that - he was slowly becoming a man without a real home.

St Kew, the village forming the family estate in Cornwall, had been owned by the Ramages for five or six centuries, but for many generations the successive heads of the family had spent more time abroad than at home, usually on the King's business. His own father used to be away at sea for three or four years at a stretch, latterly as the commander-in-chief on various distant stations. Now Admiral the Earl of Blazey spent all his time in retirement at St Kew, happily being the squire, and also the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and Custos Rotulorum.

Meanwhile his son stayed at sea, still one of the youngest and nearly the most junior of the captains on the post list. He had not seen the latest Navy List, but presumably a few more lieutenants had recently made the leap to the post list, and because a captain's seniority dated from the time of his appointment, there would now be some names below his, so that they pushed him higher (slightly higher, and very slowly!). The two most important things speeding your move up the ladder of seniority were captains going off at the top of the list on promotion to admirals, some dying, and more lieutenants being 'made post' below you.

Ramage suddenly felt guilty about Paolo, whom he could see going quietly from gun to gun, checking that all was well. He had a cutlass in a belt over his shoulder, and his dirk at his belt, a weapon he loved to use as a main-gauche. The boy must be fourteen years old now, and it was a couple of years since he had finally managed to get away from Volterra, escape through Naples and then reach a British ship of war. The voyage to England to join his aunt had decided the boy that he wanted to serve in the Royal Navy. Ramage could recall the arguments only too well: Gianna had simply announced that Paolo would serve with Nicholas. Because

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