Ramage's cabin was crowded: as usual Southwick sat in the armchair, Aitken, Kenton and Martin were crowded together on the settee and Hill and Rennick stood either side of the door, their beads canted because of the low headroom.
Ram age looked up from his desk and said without any preliminaries: "There's little doubt that Licata will be the next target for the Saracens, probably in about eight days' time."
With the exception of the first lieutenant and master, the rest of the officers looked startled; as though their captain had started fortune telling. Ramage immediately noticed and went on to explain how he had reached that conclusion.
As Ramage finished with his estimate of the number of vessels that the Saracens would have, Hill said: "How are we going to tackle that number, sir?"
"We aren't," Ramage said shortly. "There's no way we can. In other words we can't deal with them at sea."
He stopped with that remark and it was left to Hill to echo, questioningly, the phrase: "At sea?"
"Yes," Ramage said briskly. "We've got to destroy these damned pirates, and the only way we can do it is trap them on shore. They might outnumber us - probably will - but we'll have to make up for that with surprise.
"I intend landing every Marine and seaman that can be spared, and every carronade and boat gun we have. We will mount the guns where they will do the most harm - in houses covering quays, places like that - and the men will be billeted in the houses, armed with muskets and pistols, along with pikes and cutlasses.
"The Calypso will then disappear over the horizon: we don't want her presence to frighten off the Saracens. She will return every few days and look for a signal flying from the Castel San Angelo - that's the big castle you can see on the hill overlooking the town - but unless the signal is flying, to show that it's all over, she will go out to sea again and disappear over the horizon."
He put his hands flat on the desk. "I have had a difficult time selecting officers because some of you are bound to be disappointed. But we must remember that our primary concern is the safety of the ship; the operation against the Saracens is our secondary concern. Therefore, Mr Aitken will command the ship and Mr Southwick will go with him.
"Mr Rennick will, of course, command the detachment of Marines and Sergeant Ferris will be his second-in-command. Lieutenants Kenton, Martin and Hill will command detachments of seamen and the guns they will handle.
"My headquarters will be in the castle because that is the best place for seeing what's going on. And there's no doubt I will be able to see - the Saracens raid in daylight; or at least they have so far.
"One last thing for now," Ramage added harshly. "We are dealing with barbarians. I am not interested in prisoners. I warn you, if you are taken prisoner by the Saracens, then you'll spend the rest of your life chained to the oar of a galley. Any questions?"
"Are the local people here on our side, sir?" asked Martin.
"Completely. They regard it as a miracle that we arrived when we did. By the way," he asked Aitken, "do we have any musketoons on board?"
"About half a dozen, sir," Aitken said. "I'll tell the gunner to get them out." He knew Ramage's dislike of the gunner, which was why the man was not at the meeting. "Grapeshot for the carronades?"
Ramage thought a moment and then said: "No, I think case will be more lethal. The object is to kill as many Saracens as possible with every round. That's why I don't want to use grapeshot: they're too big; they're all right for damaging ships and sending up showers of splinters, but we are going to be shooting at men out in the open."
His officers were excited at the prospect: Ramage could feel the tension in the cabin - all except Southwick. The old man was sitting in the armchair like a sack of potatoes, his hair sticking out like a dry mop. The prospect of being out at sea while there was a good fight going on ashore was almost more than he could bear, but Ramage had warned him that street fighting was a young man's sport, and anyway Aitken needed a responsible second-in-command because they would be standing watch and watch about for several days and they would both be very short of sleep.
"Any more questions?" Ramage asked. "No? Well, let's make a start then: we have to get six carronades ashore and six boat guns, along with powder, shot and provisions. And rockets for signalling. That reminds me, we need provisions for all the men but not water; the mayor tells me they have a couple of good wells. Mr Aitken, I want you to stay behind: we have to work out what men you can spare."
As soon as the others had gone, Aitken sat at one side of the desk and Ramage the other. Together they worked out the minimum number of men Aitken needed to work the ship and both men were surprised at how few were needed. Aitken, saying that he would not be sailing under courses but would probably stay under topsails, decided that six topmen and twelve afterguard would be sufficient for sail handling while half a dozen idlers would be enough to do the rest of the jobs on board, ranging from providing meals - the normal mess system could not be used because it would waste men - to scrubbing the decks.
This left Ramage with nearly two hundred seamen and twenty-four Marines. Against how many Saracens? One thing he had foiled to get from the mayors had been reliable estimates of the number of Saracens attacking them. The only thing he had been able to do was to find out the number of vessels attacking the first port, Marsala, and then guess how many men they were carrying.
The mathematics did not change the fact that the British would be outnumbered, and quite heavily too. Against that was their advantage of surprise and the carronades, and probably the musketry. The Saracens would certainly have muskets, but would they have the training in loading? He doubted it.
Later that afternoon Ramage was rowed ashore to meet the mayor of Licata on the quay and he took Rennick, Kenton and Martin with him. As they walked in the hot sun along the dusty quay, which glinted with fish scales and reeked of rotted fish, Ramage and Rennick discussed the siting of the carronades. Where possible they wanted a good crossfire. Not at the actual point of disembarkation - that would give the Saracens time to scramble back into their boats and escape. No, the crossfire should be at a point where they had left their vessels and were making their way along the quay to raid the town. Within range of the carronades and the muskets.
Ramage pointed out forty or fifty square yards on the jetty. "Here," he said. "This is where we kill them. If we haven't killed them by the time they are crossing this point, then there's a chance that they will get past us and into the town. Then they might think of taking hostages, and if they do much of that we're done for; we can't do anything that would lead to the killing of hostages."
He and Rennick agreed on the siting of the first carronade: there was a narrow alley between two houses, and a carronade placed there would cover what Ramage had called "the killing ground". There were seven houses along the edge of the harbour near the alley, and Rennick agreed they were a fine place for his Marines with their muskets. Each Marine would have two loaded muskets beside him, in addition to the one he was holding, so that providing every man stayed calm they would be firing three times twenty-four aimed shots into the killing ground before having to pause to reload.
The second carronade, they decided, would be placed in the donkey stable next to the third house in the row: built of stone, the stable had a wide doorway to allow a donkey laden with panniers to come in or out, and this would give more than enough traverse for the gun.
The mayor explained patiently to the owner of the house and stable, and the man, although fearful at the sound of the word "gun", agreed once he realized it would mean extra protection against the Saraceni. There was another stable beside the sixth house in the row, and the owner agreed that his donkey should be tethered outside for a few nights so that the carronade and its crew could be housed. Ramage, inspecting the stable and checking the field of fire, decided he did not envy the gun crew who would have to live there: it was ankle deep in foul-smelling straw and had obviously not been cleaned out properly for years.
With the mayor very competently explaining to the owners the reason, Ramage and Rennick soon sited the other three carronades, and arranged for seamen to be billeted in the nineteen houses from whose windows it was possible to fire muskets to cover the killing ground. Then it was a question of distributing the remaining men among houses close to the quay, where the men would have to run only a short distance to open fire on the approaching Saracens.
"Now," Ramage announced, "I want to go up and look down from my headquarters." He pointed up to the Castel San Angelo. "That will also be our lookout tower. I see you have a flagpole," he said to the mayor. "Does it have a halyard so that you can hoist flags?"
"Why, of course," exclaimed the mayor, as though shocked at the idea that it might not. "We hoist flags on saints' days."
"Ah, once the frigate has sailed you must not hoist any more flags: she will return from time to time and look at the castle with a telescope. As soon as they see a flag flying they will know the Saracens have attacked, and they will come in and anchor."
"But it will be too late for her to help," the mayor protested.
Ramage patiently explained that the frigate's task was to stay out of sight and, because she could do nothing against a swarm of Saraceni vessels, be sure she did nothing to frighten them away.
"We want them to come here," Ramage told the mayor grimly. "Here we shall be well prepared to meet them."
"I hope so," the mayor said doubtfully. "There will be so many of them, and they move like snakes."
"But we have the guns," Ramage said, trying to reassure him.
But the mayor could not distinguish between a carronade and an ordinary gun; he did not know that another name for it was "the Smasher".
"The guns are so small," he said. "We want long guns!"
Ramage knew it was impossible to explain, and contented himself with saying to Kenton and Martin: "You fit the boat guns wherever you've got room. Try not to damage the houses too much. But don't forget they don't throw musket balls very far."
The ship's company of the Calypso were kept busy until well after nightfall hoisting out the carronades and lowering the barrels into the boats to be ferried ashore, and then when they had returned alongside, lowering down the carriages.
Once the guns were assembled on the quay the men fitted traces and hauled them into their prearranged positions. Then powder and shot had to be carried ashore and put in position. Finally at midnight a weary Aitken came into Ramage's cabin and reported that all the carronades and boat guns had been landed, and with them shot, powder, rammers and sponges. And Marines were now patrolling where the guns were sited.
He did not add that the men were worn out, but Ramage said: "Very well, let's call it a night. We'll ferry all the men ashore tomorrow after they've had a good night's sleep, and then you can hoist in the boats and disappear to the eastward."
"Don't forget to take that white ensign with you, sir," Aitken said. "We shall be watching out for that!"
"You'll be no more anxious than I will to hoist it!"
Ramage thought awhile and then said: "I must emphasize that you should not approach before the late afternoon, and then come in perpendicular to the coast, so that you are in sight for the shortest time possible."
"You're expecting the attack to be in the morning, sir?"
"Yes, probably soon after dawn. The Saracens won't have any difficulty identifying the place, thanks to Castel San Angelo and the church. They'll probably expect to catch the people while they're still in their beds."
"And you'll be up in the castle?"
"Yes, me, Orsini and half a dozen seamen who will act as messengers as soon as we sight anything."
"Supposing they come at night, sir?"
"Well, the carronades will be sited already and the messengers can raise the alarm. I'd prefer it in daylight, so that we can see who we're shooting at, but a night attack isn't impossible to deal with."
Jackson and his gun's crew shovelled and cursed as they cleaned out the stable. The carronade stood in the road outside the door because Lieutenant Kenton had agreed that apart from the dangers of the gun capsizing itself as it recoiled over so much straw, the stench was appalling, a dreadful mixture of donkey manure and urine which had collected over the years. Ramage, thinking of the practical effect of keeping men shut up in houses and stables for days on end, had finally arranged with the mayor that the town should go about its ordinary business - which meant that the seamen and Marines were allowed out in the street -until the bells of the church, also called San Angelo, should start tolling. Because Ramage knew that ringing church bells was a skilled job, he sent two seamen - whom he would have with him in the castle as messengers - with the mayor to find one of the bellringers and to get instructions how to toll the bells of San Angelo. The mayor assured him that the tolling of San Angelo could be heard ail over the port; they were loud enough to wake sleeping people, if the Saraceni should be sighted at night. The mayor agreed to warn all the people, and to tell the priest.
Jackson and his men were hot and tired and far from pleased at the sort of work. "I'm a sailor, not a farm labourer," grumbled Stafford. "These damned people have never cleaned this stable out since it was built."
"And it was built on a manure heap to start with," Gilbert said.
Finally Jackson agreed that the stable was clean enough to move in the carronade. The gun just fitted; they managed to haul it in through the doorway with only a few inches to spare, so that the muzzle protruded as though through a gunport.
As soon as the gun was in the stable Jackson set them to work hammering a hole in the wall on each side of the door into which would be fixed big eyebolts to fit the thick rope, the breeching, which would hold the carronade when it recoiled. The noise of the hammering and the dust soon upset Rossi.
"Staff is not a farm labourer, I am not a stone mason. And this noise; it is driving me mad."
"Don't worry, Rosey, no one will notice," Stafford said. "Dung spreading and stone work is all part of chasing Saracens. Very strange people, Saracens; they only hide in manure heaps and behind piles of rocks."
Finally the carronade was ready to be trained left or right. Jackson settled himself behind the gun and gave training and elevating instructions. When he was satisfied that it would sweep the killing ground the gun was loaded and laid and trained again. Now Stafford, as second captain, unwrapped the lock from the piece of cloth in which he kept it and checked the flint. As soon as he was satisfied that it was making a strong spark, he bolted the lock on to the gun, threaded the lanyard through the trigger and then coiled it up and placed the line on top of the breech.
"It's going to make a bang when we fire it in here," he observed. "I'm not sure my sensitive little ears will stand it."
"I shouldn't worry," Jackson said. "I've noticed how deaf you get when you don't want to hear something."
Stafford looked through the door across at the quay. "Where we're going to shoot, the Saracens will be a hundred yards or more from their ships."
"Exactly," Jackson said. "That's why Mr Ramage chose it. We want to kill them in a surprise attack, so that they don't have time to get back to their vessels. Take 'em by surprise: Mr Ramage says surprise doubles the number of your men and guns."
"I 'ope he's right," Stafford said miserably. "I don't want an 'undred or so of these Saracens whooping round me and trying to cut my head off with those skimitars of theirs."
"Scimitars," Jackson corrected automatically.
"I don't care what you call 'em," Stafford said sulkily. "I saw one once and it was big and 'orrible."
"Just think of them as overgrown cutlasses," Jackson said.
"S'no good," Stafford said. "I shall never think of them with 'ffection: those Saracens are wild men."
"No wilder than a panicky Frenchman fighting for his life," Jackson said reassuringly.
"We'll see," Stafford said gloomily.
"Well, let's get the powder stowed properly; at the moment the cartridges look as though they've been abandoned by a retreating army. And the caseshot: we want that in a handy pile here, just where the muzzle will be when the gun recoils."
"How many rounds do you reckon we'll be able to fire?" Gilbert asked.
Jackson looked at him quizzically. "Depends how long the Saracens wait there, and how fast you load! From here, though, we shall also be able to fire into their vessels as they lie alongside the quay. Perhaps a dozen rounds. Maybe more, if we're quick: after all, it doesn't take long to load a carronade."
"If those Saracens have any sense they'll run towards the guns to slice up the infidels," Stafford said. "Yelling 'orrible things and waving those skimitars. Is it true, Jacko, that if they get killed fighting they go straight to Paradise?"
"Where's Paradise?" Jackson said. "It's not Heaven because they're not Christians; they're just benighted heathens. They might think they're going to a special heathen Paradise, and good luck to 'em as long as they're dead. If they're in Paradise they're not bothering us," he added.
Up on the battlements of Castel San Angelo Ramage watched seaward as the Calypso sailed away south-eastward. In half an hour she would be out of sight. Ramage had to admit to himself that he felt nervous; never before had he been out of sight of the Calypso with someone else commanding her. It was not that he did not trust Aitken and Southwick; his feelings, he suspected, were more like those of a mother whose young son was away staying with an ancient and unreliable grandmother: there was a nervousness with no definable reason for it.
The castle was strongly built. The only thing it lacked, Ramage thought crossly, was guns. It had been built to protect the port, and it was well positioned. If only it had a few guns it would be able to rake the quay. He had considered landing some 12-pounders from the Calypso and hauling them up to the castle, but had finally decided that the carronades would be sufficient. The track up to the castle was so bad that it was hard climbing up it, let alone hauling up heavy guns with only manpower; Licata boasted only a few donkeys: it was too poor for horses.
But the view from the battlements was fine: it was a view he would like to share with Sarah. What was she doing at this moment? Either at the house at Aldington, enjoying the Kentish spring, or staying with her parents. He decided she would be at Aldington: they both loved the house they had inherited from his uncle, and it was reassuring to think that she would be well looked after by the staff there.
How he longed for her company. He tried to think of her only at night: there was usually enough work - especially these last few days - to keep his mind occupied in the daytime. But the night was different: he could fill it with fantasies, except that her absence was painful: it was not nostalgia, it was a painful longing.
Paolo Orsini was standing beside him, and the young Italian said: "Excuse me, sir, but we don't know how long it takes a man to get from here to the church: it might be useful to know if they come in the dark. And perhaps the men ought to get used to it, in case they have to find their way at night."
Ramage smiled. "Good thinking, my lad. You take the men now and time yourselves. It took about ten minutes from the quay to the church, but it should be less from up here."
Once the young midshipman had gone off with two men of the six who would be acting as lookouts, messengers and bellringers. Ramage paced up and down the battlements. Supposing the Saracens had decided not to bother with Licata and instead went on to the next port, Gela, which was bigger?
But why should they? he argued with himself: Sciacca and Empedocle were hardly bigger than Licata, but they had been raided. And, perhaps relevant, Licata would be easier to identify from seaward because of the castle.
Very well, but supposing there are more than two hundred Saracens? Supposing he was underestimating their strength by a half? Since he had not been able to get estimates of their strength from any of the ports, his guess was entirely based on the number of boats he estimated they had. But they had been capturing more boats as they worked their way along the coast. Had they picked up more Saracens when they went back to their base to unload the prisoners? It was possible; indeed, it was more than possible, it was most likely.
So two hundred men could easily be three hundred, or even four hundred; the Saracens, as far as he knew, never lacked for men, and the one Saracen ship of any size that he had captured years ago had three or four times more men than she would have had under the Royal Navy.
Very well, he told himself, say they have five hundred men and they come into the port and put their boats alongside the quay. Would they then attack the port in an orderly fashion, or would they straggle ashore, a score here and a score there, confident that there would be no opposition and therefore no need to hurry? With luck they might congregate on the quay, talking and joking, taking their time - taking their time and lingering in the square area which Ramage and Rennick had marked down as the killing ground.
Then they would be blasted by the carronades, boat guns and muskets. Then what? These Saracens were no cowards: would they try and attack the guns or would they make a bolt for their tartanes and galleys alongside the quay? Most of the carronades could be brought to bear on the boats, so if they bolted the Saracens would be suffering more casualties. If they bolted. If they did, it would only be because they had been taken completely by surprise. Which was of course Ramage's great ally; surprise was the ally that - he hoped - would make his two hundred men equal to whatever number of Saracens raided Licata. He was still working out all the permutations when Orsini came back with the seamen.
"Six minutes to the church because it is all downhill," he reported, "and eight minutes back. The route is obvious, and if you agree sir, the men only need to do the journey once more to be sure of it at night."
"All right, carry on Orsini," Ramage said.
With that he resumed pacing the battlements. There was plenty of room - twenty yards of flagstones, which were uneven enough that one had to watch one's step. Four signal rockets looked out, canted over the town, and beside them a slowmatch burned, the glowing end tucked into a crack in the wall. One of the rockets would be enough: the guns' crews and the seamen with their muskets would watch the Saracens landing, after being alerted by the church bells, and they would be waiting for the rocket to soar overhead, giving them the signal to open fire instantly. Ramage had impressed on them all the need to open fire the moment they saw or heard the rocket: every second they delayed would mean the loss of surprise: the Saracens would be warned that they were walking into a trap.
Ramage looked seaward. The Calypso was now out of sight. Wind shadows swept across a calm sea, which was only gently pewtered. Aitken had been lucky to find enough wind to get clear of Licata.
When would these damned Saracens arrive? Well, where were they taking their prisoners? Because it all depended on how long it took them to get there and return. If it was anywhere on the Cape Bon peninsula it would not take them long because it was less than two hundred miles to the west. There was no lack of ports -Bizerta, Tunis, Kelibia, Monastir. Or further west - Bone, Bougie and Algiers. Anywhere west of Algiers would be too far, although Mostaganem, Oran and Mers-el-Kebir were notorious as slaving centres.
And of course he was assuming they were going west. In fact they might be going south along the coast of Tunis, to Sfax or Djerba. Ramage could not suppress a shudder: it was awful to think that slaves and galleys existed in this day and age; that vessels were propelled by men chained to the oars and kept rowing in time by the lash of a long-tailed whip and the tolling of a bell. He refused to think of the brothels: for the women it must be a worse fate than that of the menfolk in the galleys.
Ramage realized that for the first time in his life he was determined to kill every one of the enemy: this was no ordinary battle where men surrendered when they had had enough. It was, quite cold-bloodedly, a matter of revenge. There was no hope of rescuing the men and women who had been kidnapped from the ports; they were lost for good and all. But it would be possible to wreak revenge on the men who had kidnapped them, and a cold feeling told him that he would show no mercy: that was the least he owed to those who had been captured.
He forced himself to stop thinking about it. The empty horizon seemed to mock him: out there, out of sight, were the Saracens, planning their raid on Licata.
He heard footsteps and turned to find Rennick approaching. The Marine officer saluted and grinned cheerfully. "I came to report that the guns are loaded and laid, sir; I've just been round and inspected every one, and the guns' crews are eagerly awaiting that rocket!"
"None of them complaining about the smell in those stables?" Ramage asked jokingly.
"No, sir, they have cleaned them out," Rennick replied seriously. "Why, Jackson boasts that his stable smells just like home!"
"He didn't say where home was?"
"No sir, and I thought it better not to inquire."
"What about the men with muskets?"
"Both seamen and Marines have their muskets loaded, sir, and they have all selected their firing positions. The moment the church bell tolls they take up their firing positions, and then they wait for the rocket."
"You didn't find any sign of drink?"
"No, sir. It occurred to me that some of the men might have smuggled wine ashore, but I found no sign. And the mayor warned the householders yesterday, didn't he? I thought he was laying it on a bit thick, what with his angry gestures and rolling eyes, but it seems to have worked."
"Oh yes," Ramage said, "it will have worked all right. He simply told them that if they gave our people a single drop of wine they would get drunk and would be incapable of protecting them against the Saracens. That was quite enough."
"I hope they give our men enough water, though," Rennick said anxiously. "It's hot in those houses and stables."
"The women will look after them. You must have seen several of them walking to the well with big jugs balanced on their heads."
"I have, sir! I don't know how they do it. Each jug holds several gallons, and the women walk so gracefully."
"There's no reason why our men don't get their own water: they can borrow jugs."
"Unlimited water," Rennick said seriously. "I hope it won't get them into bad habits when they're back on board the Calypso." "It doesn't matter if it does," Ramage said shortly. "There's the daily water ration and that's that!"
Rennick looked over the wall of the battlements and inspected the port spread out in front of him. "This place is well sited. I wonder who built it?"
"The Spaniards, I expect," Ramage said.
"You have a good view of the 'killing ground'," Rennick commented.
"That's why I chose it as my headquarters," Ramage said. "I can look down on everything. It is the only way of making sure the timing is exact."
Rennick nodded: he had already realized that it would be difficult to judge the timing from the level of the quay.
Ramage said: "I shall make an inspection this evening: every gun position and every house in which we have men. You will accompany me."
"Very well, sir," Rennick said enthusiastically. "The men will be glad to see you."
With that he saluted and departed, and Ramage resumed his pacing.
What was Sarah doing at this moment? Say she was at Aldington and it was late afternoon. She might be riding round the estate because she loved riding. She might have neighbours visiting for tea. It might be raining so that she would be sitting in an armchair sewing or embroidering, or reading. Whatever it was, he could picture her, and he felt a great longing to hold her in his arms. Naval service was a cruel one for married men; it took them away from their wives and never told them for how long, as though determined to tantalize both of them. Until he had married, Ramage realized, he had not given a damn where he was serving -the Mediterranean, the Channel or the West Indies. Now, married to Sarah, the parting would be more bearable if there was a term to it; if he knew he would be back in England, say, by the autumn.
The Aldington house would look beautiful now in the early spring, with the hitherto bare branches of the trees sprouting green leaves and blossom. Of course, Sarah might not be there: she could be staying with his parents in Cornwall or London, or with her own. It was the hell of not knowing that made separation so unpleasant. If he only knew for certain where she was he could fantasize; but being unsure added an element of unreality to the fantasies.
Paolo Orsini was standing at one end of the battlements, telescope under his arm, keeping a lookout with a seaman. The youth looked miserable and Ramage paused and beckoned him over.
"Your face is as long as a yard of cold pump water," he said.
"I was thinking of Volterra," Paolo admitted.
"Worrying about your aunt won't help much."
"I wasn't really worrying about her. I'm afraid I've given her up for dead."
And Ramage knew he could not blame the lad: the chances of Gianna surviving the attentions of Bonaparte's secret police after being caught in Paris by the resumption of the war were negligible: Bonaparte would be unlikely to let the Marchesa de Volterra, the ruler of the tiny state, return to Italy alive. And Paolo was her heir; by now he could be the legitimate ruler of Volterra - a role, Ramage thought grimly, about as dangerous, if not more so, as serving in action as a midshipman in one of the King's ships in the Mediterranean.
But Paolo did not know for sure. Ramage knew that he loved his young aunt and that he had no pretensions as far as Volterra was concerned: the lad was happy serving in the Navy, and his happiest time had been when Gianna lived safely in London with Ramage's parents while the French occupied her kingdom. Then his aunt had been safe, and knowing Volterra was occupied meant there was no point in worrying about it.
But Gianna's decision to return to Volterra the moment the Treaty of Amiens was signed, despite warnings from Ramage and his father, had smashed Paolo's little world as effectively as dropping a china jug on to a stone floor.
"What was bothering you, then?"
"I was just thinking of the mess there will be in Volterra after the French have been driven out - especially if my aunt is dead."
"If you have inherited, you mean?"
"Yes, sir. I know nothing of politics or statecraft. All I know about is ships and the sea, and that isn't going to help me get Volterra back on its feet."
"No," agreed Ramage, "and I expect the French have set up a puppet government, and those fellows won't want to give up power when the French are chased out."
"The thing is, sir," Paolo blurted out, "I don't really care about Volterra. I am much more concerned about passing for lieutenant. Why, already I can't really remember much about the place, and I certainly don't want to go back there and play politics. It's such a dirty game."
"Well, it's all well into the future: the French aren't going to be chased out of Italy that quickly, and you'll probably have been made post by the time you have to go back to Volterra."
But Ramage's heavy attempt at joking did nothing to cheer up Orsini and he changed the subject.
Ramage said: "I want at least two lookouts on duty at night. Have you enough men up here?"
"Yes, sir: six. Two hours on and four off means they'll stay alert."
Ramage nodded. "I think the Saracens will come in daylight but there is no need to tell the sentries that. Now, moonrise is about midnight, so there'll only be three hours of real darkness."
"The wind has been dropping away at nightfall this last week," Orsini offered. "If they're not in sight on the horizon at nightfall, it'll be four or five hours before they could get here. Even then they wouldn't be sure of their position."
"You're assuming they'll be sailing," Ramage said. "Don't forget they have rowing galleys, and a flat calm is just the weather for them to slip along."
"What sort of speed can they make under oars, sir?"
"I've no idea. Say five knots, perhaps more. And don't forget they may have fresh slaves at the oars - some of the men they've just captured."
Orsini shivered even though the sun was still warm. "I still can't get used to the idea of these heathens using Christians as slaves," he said.
"Remember that while you're keeping a lookout," Ramage said. "When you start feeling sleepy, just think of those slaves chained to the oars."
At that moment Ramage realized he had nearly made a terrible mistake: he had visualized opening fire on the Saracens' vessels as soon as the killing ground was clear, but if he fired into the galleys he would be killing slaves.
Well, the choice was a truly dreadful one. If he fired into the galleys to prevent the Saracens escaping, he would kill innocent slaves. If he let any Saracens escape, they would soon be back at their pitiless work of capturing more slaves. Which should it be?
It was a decision which he had to make, Ramage knew; what was more he had to make it now; there was no delaying until the situation arose, when he would have only seconds in which to decide.
He turned away from Paolo and walked along the battlements, hands clasped behind his back, his mind a torment. Fire on the slaves or not? Let Saracens escape or not?
And then, without any further conscious effort on his part, his mind was made up: he would fire at the galleys: the slaves would have to take their chance. When the death of a few of them was put in the scales against the fate of many in raids on the couple of dozen ports still left in Sicily, there was no question.
That evening Ramage left Orsini in charge at the castle and went with Rennick on an inspection of the gun positions and the seamen in the houses with their muskets. The men were in high spirits; it was the first time they had been on shore for a very long time, and in most cases the Sicilian families were being very hospitable. Although neither could speak the other's language they made do with signs, and the men's rations of salt tack were leavened with helpings of pasta and vegetables.
Jackson's stable was by far the cleanest. Ramage peered along the barrel of the gun and saw that it was aimed at the centre of the killing ground. The next stable was not quite as clean but, as the gun captain commented, it was probably the first and almost certainly the last time that it had been "mucked out". The man's use of the phrase showed Ramage that he was a countryman; probably a farm labourer swept up by the pressgang. Or maybe, overwhelmed by debt, he had volunteered, knowing that the Navy protected him from the bailiffs for civil debts of twenty pounds or less.
As he checked the last gun, Ramage decided they were all sited in the best position: the long stretch of quay was wide enough to make a perfect area for the Saracens to straggle over as they made their way into the town, and thus offer perfect targets for the carronades.
Nearly two hundred seamen and the Marines in the houses took longer to inspect but Ramage found the men had selected the best firing positions. All were prepared to quit the houses and attack the Saracens with cutlasses and pikes as soon as they had fired their muskets.
Ramage went back up to the castle well satisfied with what he had seen. Rennick obviously knew his job and both Kenton and Martin were making sure that the men behaved themselves in the town and did not wheedle wine out of their hosts. "I've told 'em that any man with the smell of liquor on his breath will run up and down the quay for an hour carrying a hundredweight sack of rocks," Kenton said. "That's increased their appreciation of water."
Back.at the castle, with darkness almost fallen, he found Orsini and two lookouts. "Just one fisherman in sight," Orsini reported. "It's the same boat that has been out all day."
"It'll give you good practice," Ramage said. "Watch him as he comes in and it will help you judge distances."
The Calypso came in sight in the late afternoon of the third day. She was within a mile of the castle when, obviously certain by then that there was no flag flying from the flagpole, she turned seaward again.
Ramage watched the ship with his telescope and felt a glow of pride: she had a beautiful sheer and the whole shape of the hull was perfectly balanced. The fact was, he admitted to himself, that the French could build better-looking ships than the British, and if the Calypso was anything to go by, faster ones too. It would be interesting to see what became of the Trafalgar prizes. Thanks to the storm which had blown up after the battle, not many of the prizes had survived, but he regretted he did not have the seniority to be given command of one of them. From what he had seen of some of the French 74s, even though they had been mostly hidden by the smoke of the guns, they seemed fine ships: fine sheers, gunports high so that the ships could be fought with a heavy sea running, and with masts that sat in the hulls as though they belonged there.
The truth of the matter was that the French shipwrights (and Spanish too, for that matter) had perfected that curious blend of science and art that was necessary to design and build a fine ship. It was something that eluded the British shipwrights. It was a fact admitted by honest men that the fastest and most seaworthy ships in the King's service were those captured from the French and Spanish. At least the Admiralty had the honesty to keep the original names - except where they were too similar to existing English names.
There was, he considered, something very British about the way the Admiralty had kept the French and Spanish names (and Dutch and Danish too), because he could not imagine the French, for instance, retaining the English name of a ship they captured. But just think of the ships at present in commission - the 68-gun Admiral Devries and the 56-gun Alkmaar were originally Dutch; L 'Ambuscade, L'Aurore were former French frigates; then there were the Bienfaisant, Babette, Bonne Citoyenne and Bonetta which were French and the Brakel and Braave Dutch, and that only took him up to ships beginning with the letters A and B. Then came the huge Commerce de Marseille, Caton, Concorde, Courageux, Constance and Cormorant, all French, and the 74-gun Camperdown, Dutch. And so it went on, the Delft, Genereux, Gelykheid, Haarlem, Helder, Heureux, Juste (of 80 guns) and the Impetueux of 78 guns, Imperieuse, Immortalite, right through the alphabet to Vryheid, Virginie, Volage, Voltigeur and Victorieuse and the Spanish El Vincelo. The last three he could remember were Dutch - the Wassender, Wilhelmina and Woorzamheid. And there was, of course, the 110-gun Ville de Paris, built in England. Would it be possible that the French would build a four-decker and name it City of London! The British, he decided, were either very special or very stupid, and he was not at all sure which it was.
Orsini came up and reported his sleeping quarters were ready. They had swept out a small room - presumably used as a magazine - on the top of the battlements and, after making sure there were no scorpions lurking around in the semi-darkness, they had put down a mattress. Its great advantage was that a cry from one of the sentries brought him on the spot within seconds.
And now it was dark. The single small fishing boat had come back in, to be welcomed by a group of women on the quay, a sure sign of their need for fish.
He was startled to hear one of the sentries challenging someone who had come up the track from the town, and pleased to find it was the mayor and a boy carrying pots of food.
"Supper for you and your men," the mayor explained. "We thought you would have difficulty in getting a fire going up here, so my wife cooked some extra pasta. And there is bread, and water. No wine, as you said."
Ramage ate his supper with Orsini and after an hour walking right round the battlements, he went to bed, more tired than he ever was at sea: the effect, he thought drowsily, of all the walking.
He woke up next morning when the mayor and boy - he was the mayor's youngest son - brought them breakfast, a simple meal of which the main course was a chunk of heavy bread. Then Ramage set off down the hill to find Rennick and inspect the men: it would do no harm for them to know that he was keeping an eye on them.
The rest of the fourth day passed without incident. The guns' crews exercised at the carronades and the seamen practised charging the quay, watched by wide-eyed children and curious adults. The mayor, who was looking on with Ramage, was most impressed, except that he thought that the Saraceni would probably outnumber the seamen and Marines.
Ramage explained about the carronades, pointing out that the seamen and Marines would not appear on the scene until after the guns had done their best to clear the quay.
The Calypso returned on the late afternoon of the fifth day and turned away when she did not see any flag hoisted. Ramage could imagine the disappointment felt by Aitken and Southwick. Impatience rather than disappointment: they would want to get the attack over with, so that they would have no more worry. Neither of them was contented with being left out of the fight; it was in the nature of both men that they could not admit that everything would go off all right without them being present. Ramage pictured Southwick bellowing his way down the quay, whirling his great two-handed sword like a scythe cutting down wheat.
Two more days: Ramage was sure that the attack would come then, which gave the Saracens enough time to get to their bases and then back again to Licata. There was no reason to expect the enemy to be punctual: Ramage was basing his calculations on the natural urge of the Saracens to finish their raids and settle down to some peaceful feasting.
Two more days: by then the Calypsos would have been on shore a week. They would have practised handling the carronades and charging the quay enough times that they would know exactly what to do, whether in daylight or darkness. They would have that advantage over the Saracens - they would know the ground while the Saracens would be strangers. Ramage knew it was not much of an advantage because Licata was such a small town. But in the coming fight the advantage would be with the side that could add up a series of small advantages.
By the sixth day in Licata, Ramage was beginning to feel the start of boredom: walking up and down the battlements and inspecting the men down in the town had its limitations. Up on the battlements he had counted the flagstones innumerable times; he had walked across them stepping on every join; he had walked their length careful to never step on a join. He had counted the lizards looking up at him with beady eyes and had in exasperation chased two or three of them, until one of them dropped his tail and Ramage tired of the sport.
When he was at sea he sometimes longed for a few days on shore, looking forward to the green leaves, the song of the birds, the lack of rolling and pitching. But Licata was not green, it was parched brown by the sun so that even the lizards were brown, not a lively green, and there were few birds: most had been shot to eat, especially the songbirds, which were so tame. And the damned dust; he forgot about the dust when he was at sea, but here in Licata there was plenty and every whiffle of wind sent up a funnel of it, so that it got in the eyes, the throat and the food. It was bad enough up in the castle: it must be far worse for the men down in the town. But they did not complain; for them the joy of being on shore for a change outweighed any drawbacks like dust.
Once again a fishing boat went out and tacked up and down in front of the port, and Ramage amused himself by trying to guess the range, but it was a game without a solution because he had no way of checking: his sextant and tables were still on board the Calypso. The fishing boat gave a curious air of normality to the port; as though the quay, houses, church and castle were not complete without a sail to seaward.
Ramage did not sleep well on the sixth night: he did not seem to be tired and it was hot and sultry. He twisted and turned on his mattress, and a dozen times got up and went outside to chat with the sentries and, several times, with Paolo Orsini. The moon was nearly full and the town seemed covered in menacing shadows. But the quay was lit up clearly; the stone gleamed white in the moonlight. Running figures, the Saracens, would show up well. If and when they arrived.
When the mayor and his boy brought up breakfast next morning Ramage felt jaded. They had been just a week in Licata and it seemed like a month; the guns' crews were now well trained at the carronades; the seamen and Marines were now used to practising with their muskets and then running down the quay screaming warlike whoops and threats.
"Well," said the mayor, as he had done for the past few mornings, "do you think they will come today?"
Ramage shrugged. "Who knows? Today, tomorrow, the day after . . . but, Signor, we are ready for them. The extra days have been useful. The donkeys have been shut out of their stables, but what we have in the stables in their place will be more useful!"
"That is very true, and the donkeys will come to no harm. Your guns will alarm them when they go off: the banging and the braying will make a noise such as we have never heard."
"How true," Ramage agreed, thinking too of the screams of the Saracens and the seamen, apart from the rattle of musketry. Licata would have a tale to tell that would be handed down for generations, growing in the telling.
When he had finished his breakfast Ramage went for yet another walk along the battlements, glad of the exercise..The lookouts, one at each end of the battlements, watched seaward. It was another pleasant day with a good breeze from the south blowing in through the port entrance and puffballs of cloud skimming inland towards the mountains.
Ramage was now definitely bored; he longed for his cabin on board the Calypso and the walk on the quarterdeck. He would settle, he decided, for a good horse and a vigorous ride inland to the foothills of the mountains, which were greyish blue and fresh looking.
He gestured to Orsini to join him as they walked. "Is this your first visit to Sicily?"
"Yes, sir, and I think I've had enough of Licata!"
"It doesn't buzz with activity," Ramage admitted. "Still, we have a castle to ourselves. In most of the other ports we'd be sharing stables with donkeys."
Orsini rubbed his wrists ruefully. "I think donkeys would be preferable to these damned mosquitoes. At dawn and dusk they just make straight for my wrists. Look at them!"
His wrists were badly swollen and covered with the weals of bites. "They seem to affect you more than me," Ramage said sympathetically. "In fact -"
At that moment one of the lookouts shouted and Ramage saw he was pointing seaward, to the west. And there, black specks on the horizon, were several vessels.
Were they the Saracens? They had only just lifted over the horizon, and they could be the fishing fleet from one of the neighbouring ports. They could be - until Ramage remembered that the Saracens had taken most of the fishing boats.
"The church bells, sir?" asked Orsini, but Ramage shook his head.
"We've plenty of time so let's wait until we're sure who they are."
He collected his telescope from his little room in the magazine and pulled out the tube, adjusting it to the inscribed line. He started counting. Six... eight. . . eleven . . . and two more were just coming into sight.
"They're the Saracens all right," he said to Orsini, "but we'll wait with the bells. The town only needs half an hour's warning, and it is going to take those boats another fifteen minutes to get close enough for us to be sure of them."
"It's a relief seeing them at last," Orsini said. "It was worse just waiting."
"It always is," Ramage commented. "Anyway, they've come on time."
Ramage watched with his telescope and finally counted fifteen vessels, and by then the hulls were lifting over the horizon. Half the boats were tartanes, easily identifiable from their sails, three were larger galleys with sails and oars, and the rest were Italian fishing boats, obviously the craft stolen from the ports in the previous raids.
"Fifteen of them. Say thirty men in each boat. I don't think there will be more because they would leave plenty of room for prisoners. That makes four hundred and fifty men altogether. On paper they outnumber us more than two to one." Ramage was thinking aloud rather than talking to anyone and Orsini kept quiet, watching the approaching vessels with his telescope.
Finally, as the fishing boat obviously sighted the oncoming Saracens and hurriedly turned back to port, Ramage told Orsini: "Send off your men to ring the bells."
Two of the lookouts ran off down the hills and five minutes later the bells began to toll, a lugubrious sound that reminded Ramage of funerals and incense and weeping women and shuffling men in their best suits.
Finally the bells stopped and by then the fishing boat was nearly back in the port, its crew ready to run for home and load fowling pieces, if they owned them.
By now Orsini was inspecting the rockets and blowing on the slowmatch. The long wait, Ramage thought, had cost them a lot of slowmatch - almost as much as there had been in the Calypso - but at least they were not now struggling with flint and steel and tinder box.
The sails of the Saracen boats had more patches than original cloth, but they were driving the boats well as they stretched along in a fine reaching wind.
Ramage swung his telescope down over the town. There was not a soul on the quay. Nor could he see anyone moving in the town The people had taken the mayor's orders to heart: he had told them that as soon as they heard the church bells they were to go to their homes and, if possible, bar the doors. Many of the houses did not have proper doors: curtains of sacking hung down. This was a poor place and anyway there was little wood about, the only trees being shrubs which were burned for charcoal.