The Calypso had been at anchor in Naples Bay for three days before the flagship hoisted her pendant number and the signal for captain. Both cutters were swinging at the boat boom, and as soon as he had changed to a fresh stock and buckled on his sword, Ramage set off.
From the time the Intrepid and Phoenix had arrived in Naples Bay with the Calypso in company, Ramage had heard nothing from Arbuthnot. Orsini had reported seeing Arbuthnot being rowed over to the flagship soon after they had anchored, and the Admiral had sent for him once. Otherwise, until now, Ramage had been left to himself.
Now what was the matter? He thought it seemed a long time had passed for the Admiral to want to rake over the Capraia affair. But it was hard to be sure: Admiral Rudd had not given him the impression of being a very stable sort of man: the more Ramage thought about it, the more likely it seemed that the Admiral could have spent three days brooding, working himself up into a temper, and now he was going to unleash it.
What could have caused it, though? The loss of head money, the fact that the French frigate had appeared on the scene, that the Calypso had not gone off in chase? No, the question of the Calypso going off in chase was Arbuthnot's decision; he had been the senior officer and Ramage could not have gone off without Arbuthnot's permission even if he had wanted to. So what was bothering the Admiral? Ramage shrugged his shoulders: it was impossible to guess, and anyway there was very little point in trying: he would know for .sure in ten minutes' time.
Jackson brought the cutter alongside the flagship, hooked on and waited for Ramage to board. He was met at the entryport by the flagship's first lieutenant who, Ramage had to admit, ran a smart ship: there had been sideboys holding out handropes, and the, handropes were well scrubbed. The deck was almost white from vigorous holystoning, and the brasswork's shine showed that many men had been busy polishing with brickdust.
"The Admiral will see you in his cabin, sir," the first lieutenant said with the superciliousness that first lieutenants of flagships inevitably adopted to post-captains at the lower end of the Post List. However, Ramage had met this too often to be intimidated.
"If you lead the way down," he said, at once putting the first lieutenant in the position which could have been occupied by a midshipman, and leaving him with no chance of a direct refusal.
Ramage found Rear-Admiral Rudd seated at his desk, and he acknowledged the Admiral's gesture to sit in the chair in front of him.
"So now we have got over the farce of Capraia," the Admiral observed sourly. "You might have anticipated that a French frigate would pick up those survivors."
The comment was so absurd, Ramage found it easy not to answer: any admiral who tried to blame a subordinate in such a crude way deserved sympathy: he must be very unsure of himself.
Admiral Rudd shifted in his chair and said suddenly: "You know about the Algerines?"
Ramage nodded. "I captured one of their ships once," he said.
"They're still present; in fact they are increasing. We've just had an official complaint from the King of the Two Sicilies, and we have to do something about it. They've suddenly started swarming over the ports along the coast of southern Sicily - kidnapping for their galleys and looting and raping. They are also taking fishing boats and apparently adding them to their own fleet."
"Do we know roughly what ships they have?" Ramage asked.
"All small stuff. Nothing like a frigate. Galleys, fishing boats crowded with men, that sort of thing. As far as I can make out a dozen or so of them attack a particular port one day - they don't bother to wait for nightfall to do their work - and then vanish for a few days, then they attack somewhere else."
Ramage thought for a minute and then asked: "Is there any pattern to these attacks, sir, or are they random?"
"No, they're not random: I was just going to tell you. Appar ently they work their way along the coast, attacking one port and then, a few days later, they arrive off the next. They've nothing to fear from the Sicilians so they needn't bother about surprise."
"What about the Sicilian Army?"
"What do you expect?" Rudd asked sourly. "They are doing nothing and His Majesty has a dozen reasons for their inactivity. He says the ports are often separated by cliffs, and it is almost impossible for troops to move along the coast. That's why he has come to us."
"It seems reasonable enough," Ramage admitted. "But catching two dozen fishing boats is like trying to catch a shoal of herrings with a single hook."
"I don't see why," Rudd said uncompromisingly. "Anyway, I can't spare any of my brigs or sloops: you're the only person I can send."
"Very well, sir: I'll do my best."
Rudd held up a small packet. "Here are your orders. And don't forget the King of the Two Sicilies and the British government are involved in all this. The British Minister is particularly concerned that we root out the scoundrels."
Ramage took the packet. "Will that be all, sir?"
"Yes, but make sure you understand that this isn't just a jaunt chasing pirates: with the King involved this becomes a major operation. If I had anyone else to send," Rudd said bluntly, "I would. I am not very satisfied with your behaviour so far under my command. You seem far too light-hearted."
"I'm sorry, sir: I do assure you I take my duties very seriously," Ramage said, wishing he could make a comment about his opinion of the attitude of the flag officer under whom he was serving. After a polite farewell he left the cabin and went back to the cutter.
Seated at his desk back on board the Calypso Ramage broke the seal on his orders and unfolded the single sheet of paper. After the usual formalities they told him that the Algerine pirates had so far raided Marsala and Mazara at the western end of the island of Sicily, and appeared to be making their way eastward. In view of representations from the Court of the King of the Two Sicilies, Ramage was requested and required to take the ship under his command and destroy the pirates.
And that was it. One thing about Rear-Admiral Rudd, Ramage thought ruefully, he does not waste any words. Even more surprising, the orders were straightforward and unambiguous; there were no hidden threats concerning the penalty for failure.
Before calling his clerk to have the orders copied into the orders book, Ramage sent for Aitken and South wick: it was his habit to discuss orders with them, not because he had any doubts but because he had long since accepted that he was mortal, and if he was killed then it would be up to Aitken as first lieutenant, and therefore second-in-command, and Southwick, as the ship's wise old man, to complete his orders. They would have more chance of doing that successfully if they knew how he had been thinking.
Southwick settled himself in the armchair as Aitken first read the orders and then handed them over to the master. Southwick read them and gave a contented sniff. "It isn't often one reads orders that don't have a lot of concealed threats in 'em," he said. "But it isn't often that one of the King's ships is sent off chasing pirates. What have they got - an old frigate or some such?"
"No, it's not going to be that easy," Ramage said. "The Admiral told me that they have a couple of dozen fishing boats - either local Sicilian craft they've captured with lateen sails and carrying twenty or thirty men, or vessels they've come over in from the Barbary coast."
"Chasing two dozen vessels with one frigate isn't going to be easy," grumbled Aitken. "Those damned things are fast and they go to windward like a ferret out of the bag. They're shallow draft, too, so they can run up on a beach. Half the time they'll be out of gunshot of us if we have to cruise round in deep enough water."
"Come now," Ramage said chidingly, "you're letting the thought of a couple of dozen Algerines beat you before we've set sail!"
"Maybe so," Southwick said gloomily, "but you mark my words: it'll be like trying to catch eels with slippery hands."
"How shall we start rinding out where they're operating, sir?" Aitken asked.
Ramage thought for a minute or two. "Well, we can either go round the north coast and catch them up, or we can go round the south coast and meet them as they work their way eastward."
"Northabout," Southwick said firmly. "It'll be easier following them - we shall know where they are. If we go southabout we'll never know when we are going to run into them - or maybe run past them."
Ramage nodded: Southwick had put into words his own thoughts. He took the orders and folded the paper along the original creases. A single sheet of paper, but it brought a shipload of problems.
Marsala - he had only been there once: a town which looked as though it should be in Africa. And, of course, the home of the strong, sweet wine. And the port's name as far as the Algerines were concerned was the Port of God, Marsah el Allah. Saracen, Algerine, Barbary - they were all pirates and had been for centuries, whether they came from the Levant in the east or Algiers in the west. A pity they had sacked Marsala - had they set fire to the place? From what little he knew of the Algerines, they tended to kidnap, rob and rape; they rarely burned down a town, for the simple reason that they planned to return a year or two later and repeat their raid.
And curiously enough, they were as anxious to capture human beings as anything: men to man their galleys - slaves chained to the oars did not live long - and women to put in their brothels. The trade in human beings was what made Algerine raids so sickening. The Italians called them Saraceni, Saracens, and there were few towns along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea which had not been raided half a dozen times in the last hundred years or so. The forts which dotted the coast were used mostly to keep a watch for the Saraceni. There were few Tuscan coastal towns that he knew of which did not have some legend about the Saraceni. There was the story of La Bella Marsiliana. Marsilia was a little town just north of Monte Argentario and according to legend the Saracens raided the town. Among the women they carried off was one of great beauty and charm, and when she was brought back to the Saracen headquarters, a prince fell in love with her and married her, and they lived happily ever after.
But the story of La Bella Marsiliana must be a rare one as far as the women were concerned; most of them probably spent the rest of their active lives in brothels, killed off when they were too old to be useful.
No, the Saracens, or Algerines, call them what you will, were barbarians who regarded everyone else as infidels, unbelievers to be enslaved or put to the sword. They were not the sort of people, Ramage thought, to be taken prisoner.
British warships would be welcome at Marsala, Ramage reflected: once the Spanish ports had been closed years earlier so that British ships could not call in for wine for the men's daily ration, one of the favourite replacements had been the wine of Marsala.
The Calypso passed Trapani, with its high striated cliffs, and the great grey castle, centuries old, peered down from the summit of Monte San Giuliano, where it sat four-square in the village of Eryx almost surrounded by pine forests.
Over to starboard were the Aegadean Islands of Levanzo, Favignana and Marettimo, sitting a few miles offshore like giant teeth set in the sea. Ramage thought about calling at the islands to see if they had been raided, but they were almost uninhabited, the haunt of tunny fishermen.
The lookouts had reported a few tartanes, probably carrying salt from the salt ponds round to Trapani itself. Then, beyond the point, the frigate headed south to round Punto Scario and then turn in to Marsala. Ramage had an old history of Sicily in his cabin and he had looked up Marsala. Like most places in Sicily it was ancient, originally Phoenician, and when Rome was busy with Carthage, it became a busy port. The most extraordinary thing that he read was how often the port had been blocked by rocks being rolled into the entrance. The Romans had done it once; then the Venetians had shut it off at the time of the Battle of Lepanto, to make sure that the Saraceni - this time Turks - should not use it. But, according to the book, Marsala had begun to thrive thirty years ago when a couple of Englishmen started to export the local wine to England. The sweet wine, like a heavy sherry, immediately became popular. It was curious how the Royal Navy's demands influenced the fortunes of places: in the West Indies, rum was king because the Navy wanted it to issue to the men, and for ships serving this side of the Atlantic, Spain had supplied much of the wine that replaced the rum, until Spain threw in her lot with France, when Italian wines - and particularly Marsala - came into favour.
So that was how prosperity came to a little port on the south-west corner of Sicily - because its grapes produced a particular wine. At least, not just Marsala itself produced the grapes, the countryside around shared the harvest.
And why, Ramage wondered, was the cathedral of Marsala dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, whose glory surely was to be found at Canterbury?
Southwick walked across to him and said: "At Marsala we have to watch out for II Marrobbio."
"Do we indeed, and what is that?"
"Well, it has three names, depending on which part of Sicily you happen to be in: Marrobbio, Carrobbio and Marrubio. It's a series of waves which can spring up at any time, usually when the weather is calm. The waves are two or three feet high, and they come in surges at intervals ranging from ten minutes to half an hour.
"You get them along the western, southern and eastern coasts of the island but they are most prevalent in the south-western corner -at Marsala, in fact. So we must watch out. We need an extra two or three feet under our keel, and the boat crews need warning to be on the lookout; it's enough to capsize 'em."
"Any other cheerful warnings?" Ramage asked sarcastically.
"No, sir, only that the Marrobbio can churn up a nasty current inside the port."
"What a pity it doesn't catch some of these Saraceni!" Marsala was a sullen, frightened town: when Ramage landed by cutter he was told by the mayor that the Saracens had taken an estimated three hundred men and at least fifty women. The cathedral had been looted along with the town hall and most of the big houses near the quay. In many warehouses big casks of Marsala had been stove in, apparently just deliberate vandalism since none of the wine had been stolen.
"But the boats," one of the men lamented. "They took all our big fishing boats. We've nothing left to fish with or to fetch wood to build new ones."
And that, thought Ramage, covers another of Sicily's tragedies: it is always short of wood. It was said the Phoenicians first cut down all the trees, having learned that was a quick way of reducing the rainfall and turning a place into a desert, and thus making Sicily which cut the Mediterranean in half- uninhabitable and therefore not a threat. Since Phoenician times trees had had a hard time trying to survive in Sicily, and in recent years even bushes were cut down to satisfy the charcoal burners. Without charcoal the people could not cook their food; without wood they could not build the boats to catch the fish to feed on. It was a miracle that people could survive in Sicily, and it was significant that the Saracens came mainly to capture men and women.
When Ramage had himself rowed back to the Calypso he was depressed. First, it seemed tragic that people with so little to lose should be raided by the Saracens and second that the only other thing they had to lose, their very lives, should have been taken to be worn out in the galleys and brothels.
Soon the Calpyso's capstan was turning as the men weighed the anchor, and half an hour later the frigate was stretching along in a northerly breeze heading for a next port along the coast to the eastward, Mazara del Vallo. Quite apart from the distance the Calypso had run, it would not have been hard to identify Mazara because of the many belfries and cupolas. The cathedral had a high cupola with a greyish-red belfry next to it. Another church (Ramage found out later it was called Santa Veneranda) had twin belfries, and the belfry of the church of San Francisco was alone in the north-west part of the port, square and surmounted by a pyramid.
The harbour, such as it was - it was badly silted - stood at the mouth of the 'For rente Mazara, and when the Calypso anchored in six fathoms off the entrance, Southwick reported a bottom of rock and weed. Once again the cutter, which had been towing astern, was hauled alongside and Ramage climbed down following Ren-nick and a dozen Marines.
The story he heard was much the same as at Marsala: men and women had been taken, along with the four biggest tartanes which had been anchored in the harbour. But the surviving people in Mazara were pleased over one thing - the Saraceni had not damaged the statue of St Vitus, the town's patron saint, nor had they discovered a silver statue of him. This was particularly precious and every year it was carried round the town in a colourful procession.
But apart from that, Mazara was a town of weeping women and men walking round as though they had been stunned. There was not much damage to the town and that, Ramage thought to himself, was about all that could be said in favour of the Saraceni. Ramage had a long talk with the mayor: he had managed to escape being taken prisoner by hiding in the belfry of one of the churches. The Saraceni had raided the town in broad daylight, taking about a hundred men and fifty women, and had left to the eastward. When Ramage compared the dates, he found that Mazara had been raided twelve days after Marsala. Why the long delay, since the voyage between the two took only a few hours?
The answer, when he finally thought of it, was very obvious: the Saracens had only small boats - fishermen, tartanes and the like -which could not hold many people, so after each raid they had to return to their base to unload the prisoners, and then come back to the Sicilian coast for more.
Ramage almost breathed a sigh of relief: he was - probably - not as far behind the Saraceni as he thought: there were only five more ports along the south coast that the pirates were likely to raid. Would they then work their way round the east coast? Or would they start along the northern coast?
The Calypso spent the night anchored off the port and next day weighed to sail eastward to the next little port, Sciacca, an old town perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking the harbour.
As the Calypso anchored off Sciacca - the harbour was too shallow to allow the frigate in - Ramage saw that the port was surrounded by a wall, with the ruins of a castle at the eastern end. At the other end was a church with a green cupola. He had no trouble finding Punta Pertuso, marked on the chart - it had bright yellow cliffs and had a hole through it.
There were only a few boats lying alongside down in the harbour and Ramage, accompanied by Rennick and a couple of Marines, had to walk up to the town, which was obviously originally Aragonese. The square in the middle of the town was pleasantly cool, and when Ramage asked the way to the mayor's house he was directed to a small house two streets behind the square.
The mayor was home, a stocky little man with a large flowing black moustache which contrasted with his grey hair. The man was obviously intrigued at this visit from a British naval officer and his escort and Ramage, already hot from the walk up the hill, was thankful to be invited into the house, out of the sun.
Ramage explained the reason for the Calypso's arrival off the port and the mayor admitted that at first when he had seen the ship he had been alarmed.
"We are defenceless," he said. "A few fowling pieces and scythes. Not enough, you understand, to drive off six Saraceni, let alone a hundred."
"So they've been here. How many prisoners did they take?"
"About a hundred men and twenty women. And they took most of our fishing boats: all those of a good size. You saw the ones they left down in the port."
"When were you last raided?" Ramage asked.
"When I was a boy. Thirty years ago, perhaps more. Marsala, yes, they raided there only about five years ago, but not here: they left us in peace until now. So we have lost our best young men. What can we do?"
"We can't do anything about the men already taken," Ramage said. "They are probably already in Algiers or Tunis or some such place. But I am here at the King's order -" Ramage thought the exaggeration was in order, " - to try to destroy these pirates, to stop them raiding more towns."
The mayor shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. "Marsala, Mazara, here - why, if Selinunte had been inhabited they would have raided there."
Selinunte was the ruin of a large Greek city ten miles or so west of Sciacca: Ramage had seen the huge stone columns as the Calypso had sailed past, and his book told him that there were great blocks of stone and many sculptures left there after the Carthaginians sacked the city five hundred years before Christ.
"At least the Saraceni did not burn your town," Ramage said gently. "At least your survivors still have somewhere to live."
"Some life," the mayor said bitterly. "I have lost a son and three nephews, and a niece. And the people call me lucky: many of them lost more."
The man was about to cry, and Ramage knew of no way of comforting him: there was no way of disguising the fate of the men and women he had lost, and at the moment there was no guarantee that another such raid would not happen.
Ramage said his farewell, and with Rennick and the Marines he walked back down the hill again.
As they walked, Ramage told Rennick what the mayor had said. Finally Rennick said: "I wonder if I would have been so controlled if I had lost so much."
"I don't know if he is controlled or stunned. I think it is too soon after it happened. It'll be another week or two before he realizes exactly what he's lost. Or what has happened to them. Yes, he knows they've been captured; but he hasn't yet thought about the galleys and the brothels. That is what will break him up."
Back on board the Calypso, he called Aitken and South wick to his cabin and repeated to them the mayor's story. Their reaction was the same as Rennick's.
"There's no chance of rescuing any of them, that's the terrible thing about it," Southwick said.
"It's obvious that the Algerines have hundreds of slaves," Ramage said. "And no one dares guess how many women go into the brothels."
"It's a pity we can't do something about it."
"That's what the British government has been saying for a hundred years," Ramage said. "But first you have to capture Algiers. Then half a dozen other places. And by the time you have captured them, most of the slaves will have been put to death. There's no man alive more ruthless than a Saracen."
"Where now?" Southwick asked.
"We'll just carry on eastward along the coast. Porto Empedocle is the next place, and I have a feeling we shall arrive there too late."
The mayor of Porto Empedocle told a similar story to that of the mayor of Sciacca: the Saraceni had arrived three days earlier, turned out all the men and women and lined them up in the street, and then taken their pick. The mayor had lost four nephews but as the good lord had not seen fit to give his wife any children, he had not lost any sons. The Saraceni had gone off with their prisoners, seventy men and thirty women, many of whom were crowded into fishing boats stolen from the harbour.
"We shall never recover," the mayor said. "We have lost our best young men and our boats. What is there left?"
And Ramage knew he was right: there was nothing left. On the ridge above Empedocle stood the temples of Agrigento: a vast Greek city whose now ruined walls enclosed a couple of square miles. At the height of its power, it was estimated, the population had been a million people. Even before then the Cretans had tried to capture the city for five years. And what did it all mean now for the mayor of Empedocle, grieving at the Saraceni raid? Nothing, Ramage decided; it simply emphasized how, in the sweep of history, none of it mattered.
As Ramage returned to the Calypso in the cutter he considered the three days. If he was correct, the Empedocle prisoners were still on their way to Algiers or Tunis, or wherever the Saracens were based.
Back in his cabin, relating to Aitken and Southwick what the mayor of Empedocle had told him, Ramage repeated the information about the three days, and Aitken immediately said: "We should find that the next port, Licata, hasn't been attacked yet."
"Not only that," Ramage said, "but we have eight or nine days to get ready for the next attack."
Aitken shook his head: he was puzzled and dispirited. "From what all the mayors have been saying, the Saracens have picked up another twenty or so boats. If they started off with twenty - and I doubt if they had fewer than that - they now have forty. How can we deal with forty boats even though they won't be carrying guns-at least half of them won't, anyway. It'll be like trying to snatch sprats out of a barrel: those tartanes and galleys will be just as slippery."
It was a point which had been worrying Ramage since he first arrived off the coast: how could a lumbering frigate sink the fast and agile Saracens? Because it was a question of destroying them, not just driving them off. Drive them off today and they'll be back next week, or the week after, warier but just as determined.
Southwick gave an enormous sniff, and Ramage recognized it as the warning that he had an important pronouncement to make.
"We can't do it," he said. "There's no way. I don't usually say something is impossible, but there is no way we can stop forty boats - or even twenty - and destroy them, even if they are drawn up in a regular line of battle, which of course they won't be, being Saracens."
"I've been thinking the same thing for days," Ramage admitted.
"But so far I can see no alternative but to wade right into the middle of them and sink as many as we can."
"I don't think we'll sink many," Southwick said. "They're all fast and weatherly craft. Tartanes can eat their way to windward and those damned galleys can turn on a penny piece."
"Makes me think we shouldn't be at sea," Ramage said enigmatically.
The little port of Licata, some thirty miles along the coast, was the next place to visit. Nor was it difficult to find: it stood at the mouth of the Fiume Salso and a big castle, Castel San Angelo, was built on Monte Ecnomo on the western side of the town with the church of San Angelo, which had a very prominent cupola, on the eastern side.
The Calypso anchored off and Ramage went in with the cutter. He was surprised how small was Licata, and it seemed too unimportant for the Saraceni to raid. Nor had it been attacked. The mayor was a sturdy, grey-haired man who regarded Ramage as a saviour.
"When we heard every port had been attacked between here and Marsala," he said, "we gave ourselves up for lost. But then at the last minute you arrive with your great ship, Commandante. Our prayers have been answered just in time."
Ramage held up his hand to stop the man. "We can't do much against so many of their vessels," Ramage said. "We think they'll have about forty or more, and how can just one ship destroy them?"
The mayor looked crestfallen. "But you have such a big ship, and all they have will be tartanes and galleys."
"Yes, I know," Ramage said patiently, "but they are very agile. It would be like a man in a large boat with a trident trying to spear little fishes. You spear one but there are many more ..."
"Then send your men on shore and help us fight the Saraceni in the streets," the mayor said, and immediately Ramage knew his idea was a practical one, and he wished he had discussed it with Aitken and Southwick.
"How many people are there in Licata?" Ramage asked.
The mayor shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? Perhaps four thousand, but maybe only three."
"How many men have you who can fight?"
"Fight? It will be mostly with swords and cudgels: I doubt if there are fifty fowling pieces in the whole town, and the powder for them is probably damp."
"Very well, how many with swords and cudgels?"
"Young men who can fight, perhaps two hundred. Most of our men are now old and decrepit; not fit for much more than sitting in the sun and puffing a pipe."
"And what about water?"
"Plenty - we have two good wells. Why?"
"If I land a hundred men they can bring provisions but they'll need water. Not just for a day or two but every day until the Saraceni arrive. If they arrive, that is."
"They'll come," the mayor said grimly. "They're picking off the ports like ripe oranges. We're the next to last one along this south coast. They'll come all right."
He is right, Ramage told himself, and nodded. "Yes, I think they'll come - in six or seven days."
The mayor looked puzzled. "What makes you so sure? Why not tomorrow, or the next day?"
Ramage explained the timetable for the previous raids, and how it seemed that the Saraceni needed twelve days or so to take the prisoners back to their base and return to the coast of Sicily. Empedocle had been raided three days before the Calypso arrived, and the frigate had taken a day to get here because of light winds, making four days in all since the raid on Empedocle.
The mayor was now getting excited: he had been living with the thought of a Saracen raid for so long that he had given up hope; now Ramage's arrival had changed everything.
Ramage interrupted his spate of excited speculation with a harsh remark. "We must destroy these men, every one of them. There is no point in driving them off. Drive them off and they'll be back again in days or weeks."
"Yes, yes, we must trap them," the mayor exclaimed.
Ramage nodded. "I am going back to my ship to make plans," he said. "Be patient; I shall return."