Ramage's Devil

(#13 in Ramage series)

For the late Frank Casper, sailor, navigator and friend


They were both lying, propped up by an elbow, on the bristling carpet of short, coarse grass which was fighting for its life on top of the cliff, the roots clinging desperately to the thin layer of earth and finding cracks in the rock beneath. The browning leaves struggled against a wind which, although this afternoon little more than a brisk breeze, still whipped up a fine, salty spindrift from the swell surging on to the rocks below and sent it high like invisible smoke across the top of Pointe St Mathieu.

The Atlantic swell, from this height looking like slowly rippling wrinkles, swept in lazily from the west to hit first the barrier of tiny islands and rocky shoals stretching a dozen miles from Ushant, over on their right, down to the Black Rocks, which were in front of them and five or six miles to seaward. After surrounding each rock and islet with a fussy white collar of foam the swells rolled on inshore to smash against the front of the cliffs sixty feet below with a strangely remote booming that they felt rather than heard, like the tiny tremors of a distant earthquake.

Above them the sky was strewn with white cottonball clouds which seemed to be looking down on the rollers and the cliffs, pleased at finally making a landfall after a long but boring Atlantic crossing. But to the two pairs of eyes long accustomed to the brilliant, almost gaudy sharpness of tropical colours, the sea and sky background seemed washed out, faded and without energy.

Gulls hovered like kites on the wind currents coming up the cliff face and sometimes wheeled over them, as though curious and wanting to see why this dark- haired man and young, tawny-haired woman should be there alone and just looking seaward, not tending cattle or sheep, their horses tethered by the reins to pieces of rock jutting like teeth. Close by, two brown and white cows cropped the grass with indifference, as though they were supposed to graze a particular area by nightfall, and knew that they were comfortably ahead of their schedule, moving so slowly that the bells round their necks only occasionally gave muffled clangs, apparently reluctant to interrupt the whine of the wind and the distant thunder of the waves.

The occasional contented sigh, the sudden indrawn breath, the gentle touch of a finger, the woman's occasional toss of the head to move strands of tawny hair that blew across her face and tickled, revealed an erotic atmosphere (though neither of them thought of the word) not entirely due to the splendid isolation of Pointe St Mathieu which, with one exception, seemed to be saying that up here, on a sunny afternoon, nature was pausing briefly at the second phase of the cycle of birth, love and death, and smiling.

The exception stood behind them, grey, stark, shadowed in the sun yet not menacing. The ruin of the old Abbey St Mathieu was still solid, the walls forming geometrically precise angles with the flying buttresses. It looked as though it had been lived in until some unpredictable giant or unexpected storm had lifted off the roof and hurled it away.

Acouple of artillery batteries, one to the left and the other to the right, with their guns still in position, were the only other signs that humans had ever passed this way.

'Les Pierres Noires,' Ramage commented, gesturing down at the handful of black shapes scattered in the sea below them like sheep crouching against the wind on a distant moor. 'Known to the Royal Navy as the Black Rocks. It seems strange to be looking down at them from up here, from France. Having the French view ... If these were normal times - wartime, anyway, because that's all I can remember - the French lookouts up here would be watching Ushant over there' - he pointed to the rocky island just in sight, the last in a series of smaller ones leading to it like enormous stepping stones - 'making sure no English ships sneaked along the Chenal du Four inside that great shoal, or round the southern end to get into the Iroise river.

'How different it looks from a British frigate!' he added, the dreaminess leaving his voice. 'There'd be the Black Rocks sticking up like ancient teeth and beyond you'd see this line of cliffs with the ruins of the abbey on top. And of course Le Conquet' - he pointed to the right - 'and the other villages to the north, although from the deck of a frigate the cliffs mean you can only see church towers and steeples. Le Conquet's tall open steeple: I remember that well, a cone-shaped skeleton.

'And French and English alike are here just to watch the Gullet. That's the mouth of the river down there' - he pointed over the edge of the cliff to their left - 'round the corner, as it were, and running up to Brest itself.'

She nodded across to the other side of the Gullet. 'What's that headland over there?'

'The Camaret Peninsula, forming the south side of the Gullet, with plenty of guns to keep out rosbif trespassers. The little town of Camaret is well inland. I remember seeing Camaret Mill once, but we had gone very close in and had a scare when the wind dropped on a flood tide.'

Sarah said: 'All this must remind you of Cornwall.'

He paused, lost for a moment in memories. 'Yes, because apart from the cliffs and hills the village names would be hard to distinguish, Delabole, Perranzabuloe, Scorrier, Lanner, Lansallos, Trelill, Lanivet, Lelant, St Levan - all good Breton names: could be within twenty-five miles of here!'

She nodded, and he added: 'And in Cornwall - Portsall, Lesneven, Lanion, Lannilis, Crozon, Plabennec, Kerlouan...'

'It's extraordinary,' she commented. 'Still, I think one can distinguish the Cornish ones.'

'Can you?' he smiled, eyebrows raised.

She nodded. 'Oh yes, even though I'm not Cornish.'

He laughed and leaned over to kiss her. 'Don't be cross with your new husband because he's teasing you. The first names are Cornish - the ones you thought were Breton. All the second are here in Brittany!'


'Just listen to these: St Levan and Lesneven, Lanivet and Lannilis, Perranzabuloe and Plabennec ... the first of each pair are Cornish, the second Breton. I can forgive you for mistaking them! And Botusfleming, Lansallos, Lesnewth, Lezant, Trelill - they hardly sound very Cornish, but they are.'

Sarah smoothed the olive green material of her dress, not bothering that the wind ruffled her hair. 'Brest... the blockade of Brest... I've heard you and your father talk about it,' she said thoughtfully. Her voice was deep; he reflected that he seemed to hear it with his loins, a caress rather than a sound. She was watching a bee circling a buttercup, thwarted as the breeze bent over the golden bell. 'We can't see the port from here, can we?'

He shook his head. 'Bonaparte's main naval base on the Atlantic coast is well up the Gullet. One has to sail in close under the cliffs (with these and other batteries pelting you if you're British in wartime) and usually there's a soldier's wind to let you run in. All the way up to Brest the Gullet narrows like a funnel and there are three forts on your larboard hand - if memory serves they're Toulbroch, Mengam and de Delec; we'll be able to see them on the way back - and one on the other side. Plus various batteries.'

He half turned, resting on an elbow and looking across at the hills beyond Brest and at the ruined abbey in the foreground. It was built many centuries ago and obviously had been abandoned for at least a hundred years, but he tried to think what men had quarried the rock and hammered and chiselled the blocks to shape to build a monastery on what is one of the bleakest spots in Europe. Here during winter gales it must seem the Atlantic was trying to tear away the whole continent. Were those monks of the Middle Ages (or earlier?) scourging themselves by establishing their home on one of the windiest and most storm-ridden places they could find? Did they think the harshness made them nearer to God? Were they seeking absolution from nameless guilts?

'This must be the nearest point in France to Canada and America,' Sarah said.

He shook his head. 'Almost, but Pointe de Corsen is the most westerly.' He pointed northward along the coast. 'Look, it's over there, about five miles, beyond Le Conquet. Hundreds, indeed thousands of English seamen know it because it's a good mark when you're working your way through the Chenal du Four, keeping inside of Ushant and all those shoals

He fell silent, looking westward, until finally Sarah touched his cheek. 'Where are you now?'

He gave a sheepish laugh. 'Running the Calypso into Brest with a southwest wind. Earlier I was beating in against a northeaster, with all the forts firing at me. I was scared stiff of getting in irons and drifting ashore.'

'Southwick wouldn't let you do that,' she said teasing.

Like Ramage, she remembered the Calypso's white-haired old master with affection. She said: 'I wonder what he's doing now?'

He shook his head as if trying to drive away the thought. 'By now he and the Calypso's officers and men will probably have the ship ready to be paid off at Chatham.'

'What does 'paid off' really mean? I thought it was the ship, but it sounds like the men.'

It was hard for him to avoid giving a bitter answer. 'Officially it means removing all the Calypso's guns, sails, provisions, cordage and shot (the powder will have been taken off and put in barges on the Thames before she went into the Medway), and then the ship, empty except for a boatkeeper or two, will be left at anchor, or on a mooring. They may take the copper sheathing off the hull.'

'Why 'may'?' she asked, curious.

'Well, you know the underwater part of the hull of a ship is covered with copper sheathing to keep out the teredo worm, which bores into the wood. Now some peculiar action goes on between the metals so that the ironwork of things like the rudder gets eaten away. Not only that, but after a year or so the copper starts to dissolve as well, particularly at the bow: it just gets thinner. So when a ship is laid up she is usually first dry-docked and the sheathing is taken off.'

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