Naples Bay looked as splendid as ever, guarded by Mount Vesuvius standing four-square to the eastward. The flagship, three 74s, a frigate and various sloops represented the King's ships, but there were dozens of local craft tacking, running and reaching as they went about their business of fishing, carrying vegetables, or taking passengers from one of the little ports to another round the perimeter of the Bay.
The weather was perfect: an almost clear sky, a fresh breeze from the west to raise a few small white caps, and the sun glaring down, warm and threatening to be hot by noon. A small white cloud lurked over the top of Vesuvius like a cap, making it seem that smoke was streaming out. Ramage saw it and thought momentarily of Pompeii and Herculaneum, still buried under the lava.
As the Calypso glided in there was no signal from the flagship telling him where to anchor, so he picked a spot half a mile to windward and Aitken patiently conned the ship while Southwick went forward to the fo'c'sle to prepare for anchoring. The frigate, under fore and maintopsails only, seemed in no hurry; she crossed the Bay with an elegance that Ramage found pleasing.
On the desk in his cabin was a report addressed to Rear-Admiral Rudd. Ramage had worked hard on it, careful not to omit anything without making it too verbose. And without giving Rudd any grounds for making trouble. After the head money episode, which had revealed the Admiral's preoccupation with money, Ramage had been careful to explain why none of the Saracen ships had been brought in as prizes; all had been sunk in action, except for the two galleys, which were very poor sailers but were due in Naples within the next day or two under the command of Lieutenant George Hill and Midshipman Paolo Orsini. Ramage had been careful to explain that without slaves at the oars and relying only on their sails, it was almost impossible to get the galleys to go to windward, but when last seen - off Licata - both of them were reaching along at three or four knots.
Would the Admiral buy them in? Ramage doubted it; galleys were no use to the Royal Navy, and it was unlikely that anyone in Naples would want to buy them, since without oars to assist them they sailed like floating haystacks. He had brought them in, Ramage admitted to himself, just to please the Admiral. No, that was not quite true. Not to please him exactly, but to show that the Licata operation had been completed successfully, right down to bringing in two prizes. Not to give the fellow any room for criticism, Ramage admitted to himself.
Aitken gave a brief order to the quartermaster and, picking up the speaking trumpet, sent the topmen aloft to the maintopsail. As soon as the men were up the rigging he gave the order to furl the sail and the men spread out along the yard like starlings on a bough. Within moments they were hauling in the heavy canvas in great folds, then they had it against the yard and were passing gaskets to hold it there. As soon as the sail was secured, Aitken barked out the order: "Down from aloft!"
Soon the Calypso was gliding the last few hundred yards before anchoring. The sheets and braces of the foretopsail were hauled so that slowly the sail was backed and the Calypso came to a stop as the wind blew on the forward side of the sail. Ramage signalled to Southwick to let go the anchor and, after a splash, Ramage noticed the familiar smell of rope scorching as it raced out through the hawse. There was something pleasantly final about the smell; as though it signalled the end of another successful voyage.
By now the backed foretopsail had thrust the Calypso enough to give her sternway, pulling out the cable and putting just enough weight on it to help the anchor dig in on the sea bed. Southwick was calling out the length of the cable that had been let out, and as soon as it reached five times the depth called out by the leadsman in the chains, he stopped and the cable was made up. Ramage left the topsail backed for a few minutes, just to make sure the anchor had dug in, and then told Aitken to carry on, which was another way of saying furl the sail and put over a boat for the master.
Southwick now had himself rowed round the ship "squaring the yards", making sure that the yards were hanging absolutely horizontally. Neatly furled sails and perfectly horizontal yards were the sign of a well run ship, and the phrase "I soon squared his yards" was part of the Navy's language, another way of saying "I soon put him in his place!"
With the ship anchored and the yards squared, it was time for Ramage to have himself rowed over to the flagship so that he could report to the Admiral. First he had to change into his second-best uniform, put on clean silk stockings and a fresh stock, and buckle on a sword. He decided to wear the sword recently presented to him by Lloyd's - not to show it off to the Admiral but because he had promised Sarah that he would use it on formal occasions. She had been very proud of it - so proud when it was presented to him at a dinner at Lloyd's that she was very near to tears. The memory of that moment stopped Ramage as he tied his stock: he could picture her so clearly, as though she was in the cabin with him. It was strange how a sudden memory could make you go weak. "I went weak at the knees" was a commonplace saying, but there were times when it was true, and now was one of them. He felt an overpowering desire to be holding her in his arms, with her tawny hair tickling his face so that he had to blow it away.
He shook his head to clear the memories and stood up, checking that his stockings were straight, feeling that his stock was square, and hitching at his sword. He picked up the leather case in which he was carrying his despatch to the Admiral, and his hat, and then made his way up on deck, where the cutter waited for him, manned by Jackson, as the captain's cox'n, and with Stafford, Rossi and the Frenchmen among the crew.
Admiral Rudd was formal: he did not smile, nor did he shake hands. He waved Ramage to a chair in front of his desk and, in an expressionless voice, said: "Well?"
The sparseness of the greeting startled Ramage, who said lamely: "I've just returned from Sicily, sir."
"I imagined so," Rudd said. "You carried out your orders?"
"Yes, sir: I have my despatch here."
Ramage took out the report and put in front of Rudd.
"There are no Saracens left along the coast?"
"None, sir. Of course, there's nothing to stop more coming, but I dealt with those attacking the ports."
"What do you mean 'dealt with'?"
Ramage tapped his despatch. "It's all in here, sir. They're all dead."
"How many were killed? Twenty, fifty?"
"About four hundred, sir," Ramage said soberly.
"Four hundred?" Rudd exclaimed incredulously. "But your whole ship's company isn't much more than a couple of hundred!"
"No, sir," Ramage agreed, "but we managed to turn our carronades on them."
"What! They attacked your ship?"
"No, sir," Ramage said patiently, "as I describe in my report, we landed men and guns at the port of Licata and waited for the Saracens to attack, using the carronades to make up for our lack of numbers."
Rudd stared at Ramage, as though disbelieving him, and reached out for the despatch. He opened it and smoothed out the first page. He skimmed the formal opening and then adjusted his spectacles and started reading closely. From time to time he grunted, a noncommittal noise that gave away nothing. Finally, after he had read the four pages, he put them down on the desk again. His attitude had changed.
"Very creditable, Ramage; very creditable indeed. The British Minister will be delighted. I am sure he will arrange for a translation of your despatch to be given to the King."
"I am honoured, sir," Ramage said, trying to keep the irony out of his voice.
"Tell me, what made you decide Licata was going to be the next place they attacked?" ., "They seemed to be working their way along the coast, starting with Marsala. It was a question of getting ahead of them and waiting."
"What made you land carronades?"
"It was the only way I could make up for being so outnumbered, sir."
"But how did you know how many Saracens to expect?"
"The other ports that had been raided told me how many craft they had - tartanes, galleys and the like, and I guessed how many men they could carry."
"And how are you so certain there were four hundred?"
"I made a rough count when they landed on the quay at Licata."
"Very well," Rudd grunted. "And you say -" he tapped the report,'- that you brought in two prizes."
"They haven't arrived yet, sir. As I wrote, they are galleys and of course we have no one to man the oars. Each needs at least forty men, and I felt I could not spare eighty men - plus topmen to handle the sails - to bring them in."
Again Rudd gave a noncommittal grunt, obviously trying to put a price on the galleys and failing, since he had not seen them. "When do you think they'll get here?"
"Tomorrow or the day after at the latest, sir. They sail like haystacks but they've had a fair wind."
"Very well, that just about covers everything," Rudd said, picking up the despatch again and giving Ramage a dismissive nod.
As Ramage was rowed back to the Calypso he went over the interview again. Rudd had been cold and distant to begin with, thawing a little when he discovered that Ramage had rooted out the Saracens. When he learned, in other words, that he had something very positive to report to the British Minister, something that would put him in a good light and bring the King's thanks. Reflected glory, Ramage thought wryly. The Admiral must be very unsure of himself to get any satisfaction out of that ...
The two galleys arrived late that night, with the last of the light, and both Hill and Orsini arrived on board the Calypso to report that their commands sailed like reluctant mules. "We needed a hundred Saraceni at the oars to get them moving," Orsini grumbled. "And they carry so much weather helm that it would have been easier to sail them in circles."
"Don't be so critical of a real command," Ramage said teasingiy.
"It wasn't a real command, sir; I had to keep station on Mr Hill," Orsini said.
"Well, navigation wasn't very difficult: you kept the land on your larboard hand until you saw more appear to starboard, and then you. followed that keeping it to starboard until you sighted Vesuvius!"
"It's true it was not much of a challenge. Still, a galley sails so badly I'm thankful I did not have to beat to windward all the way to Gibraltar!"
Hill took a more practical view. "They won't sail and no one has enough men to row them, so perhaps the Admiral can sell them to the Neapolitans as houseboats. Rig tarpaulins over the catwalks and you can sleep scores. Better than the hovels many of them live in now."
"I'll suggest it to the Admiral," Ramage said jokingly. "I'm sure he will be grateful."
The following afternoon the flagship hoisted the Calypso's pendant numbers with the signal for captain, and once again Ramage dressed in his second-best uniform to go across to the flagship. He was puzzled by the signal. The Admiral had his despatch, and seemed satisfied with it: certainly he had not asked any questions indicating any doubts about it. He shrugged his shoulders: perhaps it was not trouble but new orders, some fresh task for the Calypso. There was one other frigate in the anchorage, but she was probably commanded by one of the Admiral's favourites; someone not to be burdened with run-of-the-mill commissions. Not that chasing Saracens was run-of-the-mill, but Ramage knew he had been given the job because it was assumed he would fail. And that was why Admiral Rudd had been distant and chilly yesterday: he had been anticipating the first of a string of excuses, and instead of that he had heard of complete success. What thoughts had gone through the Admiral's mind - anger, irritation, frustration?
This time, when Ramage entered the cabin after replying to the salute from the Marine sentry, the Admiral was affable, waving Ramage to the same chair with something approaching joviality.
"Your despatch," he began. "I had a copy made and I took it to the Minister myself. He was delighted: absolutely delighted. He took it along to the royal Court - after having it translated - and the King read it in his presence. You are probably going to receive some honour or other, as a token of the King's appreciation. You are collecting trophies - I see you have a sword from Lloyd's.
"The King's immediate reaction, Ramage, concerned the galleys: he was very affected by your release of the men in the galleys and wanted to know if they represented all the prisoners taken from the ports. The Minister was unable to reassure him on that point. Do they?"
"No, sir. There are five or six hundred more still at the Saracens' base, serving in other galleys. At least, so I understood from the men we freed. And all the women, of course. A hundred and fifty or more."
"Ah, yes, the women. His Majesty was equally concerned about them. They have suffered a dreadful fate."
Ramage nodded in agreement: it was sufficiently dreadful that he had shut his mind to it, being helpless to do anything about it. Some of the men released from the galleys had wept when they told him that their wives were among those women taken off; wives (and sweethearts) they would never see again.
"Do you know where the Saracen base is? I mean, the base of the particular Saracens concerned in these latest raids."
"Yes, sir. It's at Sidi Rezegh, south of Sfax. I discovered that from the men we freed from the galleys. It's a port of about ten thousand people. About six months ago the plague broke out there. It was a terrible attack - it wiped out all the slaves and the women kept in the brothel. They estimate a thousand or more Saracens died. It was because they lost all their slaves that the Saracens started raiding the Sicilian coast with tartanes - they wanted to get a large number as soon as possible to man the galleys.
"Sidi Rezegh itself is just an outpost in the sand, with a small fort. Just a harbour with a L-shaped breakwater made up of great rocks. Originally a Roman port, I understand. There are five or six other galleys left there. The men were taken off to a barracks; the women are kept in a big building which is the brothel."
"You seem to know a lot about the place," the Admiral commented.
"It was hard to stop the men we released from talking about it and the plague: they just wanted to share their experiences - and their woes about their women."
"Quite so, quite so," Rudd said sympathetically. "It's just as well they did."
There was a tone in the Admiral's voice that made Ramage look up quickly. "How so, sir?"
"The King wants those men, and the women in the brothels, rescued, .and he has made the request to the British Minister, who has passed it on to me as an order. You are obviously the man for the job."
"It's a bit of a task for a single ship, sir," Ramage observed. "Unless you can let me have two or three hundred soldiers."
"I have in mind something better than that," Rudd said expansively. "I propose giving you a frigate and two sloops, and I have arranged for you to have three hundred soldiers, which you can split up among the ships in any way you choose."
"Thank you, sir," Ramage said, reflecting that a King and a Minister meant a lot of pressure applied to the Admiral (and to the general commanding the British troops). Obviously, the Admiral considered it an important part of his future to be able in time to report to the Minister that the King's wishes had been carried out. There would be honours for the Admiral, too, and Ramage could imagine the self-serving despatch the Admiral would send to their Lordships at the Admiralty. He would begin with clearing out the Saracens from the southern ports of Sicily, emphasize how pleased was the King of the Two Sicilies, and then go on to describe how all the prisoners, men and women, had then been released from Sidi Rezegh. And it would all seem to be the Admiral's idea, and their Lordships would be suitably impressed. The role of Captain Ramage would, of course, be mentioned but, Ramage guessed, the person who received most credit for the rescue would be the captain of the other frigate: the man who was obviously the Admiral's favourite but who was, equally obviously, junior to Ramage on the Post List, so he could not be given command of the little force.
Oh what a tangled story it all was; it angered Ramage that it was rare to be involved in any operation without favouritism entering the story. Favouritism? Why not call it nepotism?
This fellow Rudd was as guilty as any other admiral: he had sent off two/favourite captains in their 74s to deal with the Frenchmen on Capraia, but it had fallen through. The favourite frigate captain had not been sent off to deal with the Saracens along the Sicilian coast because there was every likelihood of failure. No, the Calypso had been sent off, so that the scapegoat for any failure would be this newly arrived Captain Ramage, not the Admiral's favourite.
Now the Admiral's favourite was having to go on the Sidi Rezegh expedition because the Admiral dare not risk any failure, so he was sending all the ships he could spare, two frigates and two sloops. If the expedition failed, the fault was obviously Captain Ramage's, since he would be in command of the whole affair. If the expedition succeeded, well, much of the credit was due to the favourite, who conducted himself with great skill . . . Ramage could see the copperplate writing of the Admiral's despatch to the Admiralty.
Very well, that was the way things were done, and the only thing to do was to smile gracefully and do one's best - and, if one was honest, pray for the day when one became the favourite of a powerful admiral.
Suddenly Ramage felt almost ashamed of his thoughts: he had been something of the favourite of the late Lord Nelson; he must have aroused jealousy in other captains less favoured. Now he was out of luck but, if he was fair, that was no reason to get cross with this other wretched frigate captain. If you succeed, he told himself, no one can blame you, just as his recent success against the Saracens had made Admiral Rudd change his tune - to some extent, anyway.
"Yes," Rudd said judiciously, "another frigate and two sloops-and three hundred troops - should do the job. The troops will be a major's command, Major Henry Golightly, but of course he will be told that he takes his orders from you. The frigate will be the Amalie, Captain Herbert Roper, and the sloops the Betty, master and commander Jason King, and the Rose, master and commander William Payne. Your orders will be delivered by noon tomorrow, and by that time the others will have received theirs, and know that they are under your orders. The troops will embark tomorrow evening, by which time you should have let them know in which ships they are embarking. Now, is there anything else you want to know?"
Ramage thought for a few moments. "No, sir. I have to water and provision the Calypso, and it would be better if the other ships were watered and provisioned for three months."
Rudd nodded. "Very well, but do you expect to be away so long?"
"No, sir; but we shall be taking on five or six hundred men and women at Sidi Rezegh, all being well, as well as three hundred soldiers, so we shall need extra water and provisions."
"Quite so, quite so," Rudd said, revealing that he had not thought of it. "As many people as that?"
"They took around a hundred and fifty men and women from each port, sir. And I presume that if I find slaves taken from ships I should release them as well?"
"Yes, of course. But if any are French . . . ?" Obviously Rudd was doubtful about freeing any of the King's enemies, but Ramage was certain.
"If they are French they'll still be our prisoners. We can't leave them chained up for the rest of their lives in the hands of those heathens."
"No, of course not," Rudd said hastily. "But if there is any haste, the Italians have priority: you do understand that, don't you?"
"Of course, sir. There's just one other thing: I'd like to call at all the ports from which prisoners were taken - those places where we delivered men we freed from those two galleys - so that I can question the men more fully."
Rudd frowned. "Why do you want to do that?"
"Well, sir, I am going to attack a port I have never seen and for which I have no charts. Nor do I know where the slaves and the women are kept, except that they are in barracks somewhere there. These men know all the answers. After some questioning, I should be able to draw a serviceable chart to work with."
"Of course, of course," Rudd said impatiently, as though it was his idea originally and Ramage was questioning it. "It's most important that you have a good chart. And make sure it shows the barracks, or whatever it is, that the slaves are kept in. And the brothel."
"Yes, sir, I will," Ramage said, hard put to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "I'll pay particular attention to that."