PASHA ~ whet your appetite…
Chapter One — excerpt
It was as if the handsome frigate knew that she and her two-hundred-odd company were going home. After leaving the Caribbean she had quickly picked up a reliable westerly and now hitched up her skirt and flew, overtaking the broad Atlantic waves one by one in an eager swooping that had even old hands moving cautiously about the deck.
Standing braced on the quarterdeck, Captain Thomas Kydd tried to take pleasure in the seething onrush of his fine command but he couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding.
A snatch of song floated aft. The men were in good heart. They had served nobly in all three actions and could rely on liberty and prize-money to spend while L’Aurore received overdue attentions from the dockyard. Her captain, however, could only look forward to—
‘How now, old horse! Do I see you the only one aboard downcast at the prospect of England?’
His old friend and confidential secretary, Nicholas Renzi, had come on deck to join him. They’d shared countless adventures since they’d met as common seamen so long ago and had no secrets between them.
‘England? Why, not at all – it’s rather what’s lying in wait there that troubles me.’
‘Quite. We gave it our best against the Spanish but lost. And our leader to be crucified for quitting station – if we’d prevailed it would have been overlooked, but the Admiralty will never forgive us now.’ Kydd gave a bitter smile. ‘There’s above half a dozen captains who’ll bear witness that I was in league with the commodore. It’s beyond believing that they’ll stop at only a single one to pay.’
‘Possibly. But L’Aurore has done valiantly since, which should ease their lordships’ wrath a trifle.’
‘You think so? They won’t yet have learned of our putting down the sugar-trade threat, and while we did stoutly at Curaçao, who’s ever heard of the island, let alone Marie Galante? No, m’ friend, after Trafalgar the country expects nothing less than victory, every time!’
‘It might not be as bad as—’
‘Don’t top it the comforter, Nicholas. I’ll take it, whatever comes. It’s . . . it’s just that it would grieve me beyond telling should I lose L’Aurore.’
‘That would put us both in a pickle, I’m persuaded,’ Renzi said. ‘For at this particular time I’m obliged to say there are no shining prospects in store for me at all. I’ll not hide that I’m disappointed my novel was not received more warmly. It did seem to me a sprightly little volume, but the public’s taste is never to be commanded.’
‘Well, I thought it a rattling good yarn, Nicholas! Are you sure?’
‘It’s been over a year and I’ve heard not a thing.’ Renzi’s head dropped. It was no use pining, though: he had to accept he was clearly not destined to be a novelist.
‘But there’s one thing you can look forward to.’
‘Nicholas, sometimes you try the patience of a saint! You seem to have forgotten your promise!’
‘My . . .?’
‘Yes, your promise that when we touched port in England,’ he ground out, ‘you would that day post to Guildford and lay your heart before Cecilia.’
Nothing would please Kydd more than to see the long attachment between his sister and his particular friend brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
‘Yes, of course,’ Renzi said awkwardly. ‘I’d not forgotten. But . . .’
‘Yes?’ Kydd said, his voice rising.
‘Well, in the absence of prospects, I rather thought—’
‘Nicholas, dear fellow,’ he barked, ‘if you’re not on a Guildford coach within one hour of our casting lines ashore I’ll ask Mr Clinton for a file of marines who will personally escort you there. Am I being clear enough?’
It was the age-old excitement of landfall. A screamed hail from the volunteer masthead lookout, whose height-of-eye was more than that of the legitimate watch-keeper in the fore-top, sent pulses racing. The man would later claim his reward from the tots of his shipmates.
The pace of their homecoming quickened: now England would be in sight constantly, the well-known seamarks passing in succession until they reached the great anchorage at Portsmouth – Spithead.
The Needles, white and stark against the winter grey, were Kydd’s reminder that within hours all would be made clear. The order that had reached out to him in the Caribbean would have been followed by another, now waiting in the port admiral’s office. Relieved of his command pending court-martial? Open arrest?
Gulping, he realised that these last few sea-miles might very well be the last he would make under the ensign he had served since his youth.
Rounding Bembridge Point would bring Spithead into view and, if the fleet was in, he must make his report to the admiral afloat. If they were at sea, it would be to the port admiral in the dockyard. Gun salutes, of course, would be needed in either case.
The deck was crowded with men gazing at the passing shoreline, some thoughtful and silent, others babbling excitedly and laughing. It seemed the entire crew was on deck.
‘Mr Oakley!’ Kydd threw at the boatswain. ‘Is this a pleasure cruise? Get those men to work this instant!’
L’Aurore had long since been willingly prettified to satisfaction but she was a king’s ship and had her standards. And he knew the real reason for his outburst and was sorry for it. Would the crew remember him fondly or . . .?
The point soon yielded its view of the fleet anchorage – but four ships only and bare of any admiral’s flag. Thus it would be the port admiral to whom he would make his number.
Her distinguishing pennants snapping at the mizzen halyards in an impeccable show, L’Aurore rounded to and her anchor plunged into the grey-green water.
Everyone knew what must follow but Kydd told them nevertheless. ‘I shall report and return with orders, Mr Gilbey. No guardo tricks from the men while I’m gone or there’ll be no liberty for any. Secure from sea and I want to see a good harbour stow. Carry on, please.’
With a tight stomach he boarded his barge, taking his place in the sternsheets and determined not to show any hint of anxiety.
‘Bear off,’ he growled at his coxswain, Poulden.
The boat’s crew seemed to sense the tension and concentrated on their strokes even as they passed close by the raucous jollity of Portsmouth Point. Reaching the familiar jetty oars were tossed in a faultless display and the boat glided in.
‘Lay off, Poulden,’ Kydd ordered, and stepped on to English soil for the first time in what had seemed so long. It had been nearly two years.
There was no point in delaying: he turned and strode briskly up the stone steps. At the top, unease gripped him as he saw a line of armed marines ahead.
Orders screamed out, muskets clashed, and an officer began marching smartly across.
‘Captain Kydd. Sah!’
‘I am he.’
The port admiral, accompanied by his flag-lieutenant and other officers, appeared from behind the rigid line of red coats. ‘Kydd, old fellow! Welcome to England! How are you?’
He held out his hand. ‘We’ve been expecting you this age.’
The flag-lieutenant stood to one side in open admiration.
‘Oh, do inspect Cullin’s guard, there’s a good chap.’
There was nothing for it, and with a senior admiral at his side, Kydd did the honours, pacing down the line of marines wearing an expression of being suitably impressed, stopping with a word to one or two. At the end there was a flourish of swords and the party was released to go to the admiral’s reception room.
A sense of unreality was creeping in: had they mistaken him for someone else? ‘Sir. I thank you for your welcome, very pleasing to me. But might I enquire why . . .?’
A small frown creased the port admiral’s forehead. ‘Do you think me a shab not to recognise a hero of the hour? Let me tell you, sir, since Boney set off his bombshell the public have sore need of same!’
‘Hero?’ Kydd said weakly.
‘The papers have been in a frenzy for weeks. Curaçao – as dashing an exploit as any in our history! Throwing a few frigates against the might of a Dutchy naval base, sailing right into their harbour in the teeth of moored ships, forts and armies. Then every last captain takes boat, waves his sword amain and storms ashore to carry the day! How can it not thrill the hearts of the entire nation?’
‘Well, it was a furious enough occasion, I’ll grant you, but—’
‘Nonsense! A smart action – and deserving of your prize-money,’ he added, with a touch of envy.
‘Sir.’ Kydd paused. ‘Are there orders for L’Aurore at all?’
The port admiral turned to his flag-lieutenant.
‘Yes, sir. I’ll get them instanter.’
He was back but not with a pack of detailed orders, just one, folded and sealed with the Admiralty cipher. Kydd signed for it, with only the slightest tremor to his hand.
‘Do excuse me, sir,’ he said, as he stepped aside to read.
It was short, almost to the point of rudeness. He was to place his ship under the temporary command of the port admiral forthwith pending refit while he should lose no time in presenting himself in person to the first lord of the Admiralty.
His heart bumped. There was a world of difference between a public hero and a naval delinquent and, without doubt, this was going to be the true reckoning.
‘I’m to report to the first lord without delay. Do pardon me if I take my leave, sir. L’Aurore is to come under your flag until further orders – Lieutenant Gilbey, my premier, will be in command…’