By now Jackson had become an authority among most of the ship's company: he had been on shore with the captain and master at all three ports and he had heard them discussing their findings.
"I tell you what bothers me," Stafford said as he sat at the mess table, "and that's how many of these A-rabs we'll find at this place."
"Arabs," Jackson corrected. "You worry too much. Everything will be all right."
"It was a damned close-run affair at Licata," Stafford maintained stubbornly. "I still don't know what would have happened if the Calypso hadn't turned up like that."
"We'd have scraped through but we'd have lost a lot more men," Jackson said.
"Well, we lost enough as it was. I ask you, this time we've got to capture a whole A-rab town."
"No, we haven't," Jackson said mildly. "We're just going in to rescue the slaves and the women. That's all."
"That's all, eh?" jeered Stafford. "You don't really think these A-rabs are going to let us walk off with their slaves just like that, do you?"
"They might not be able to stop us. If we're quick."
"Quick? Well, you said yourself there's a fort at the entrance to the harbour."
"Steady, Staff. If you'd known the odds would you have been happy at Licata? Yet it worked out all right."
"Sheer luck," Stafford declared. "We was lucky."
"But luck always comes into it," Jackson persisted. "It's good luck if it happens to you, and bad luck if to the enemy. And admit it, Staff, with Mr Ramage we get more than our share of luck."
"Is it luck?" Gilbert asked quizzically. "Most of the time I think luck is good planning, and the reason for what you call Mr Ramage's luck is that he plans carefully."
"Is right," Albert said unexpectedly. "Luck no, planning yes. Bad plans that fail are blamed on bad luck. Is an excuse."
"Well, the Calypso turning up at Licata was luck," Stafford said stubbornly. "There was no planning about that."
"No, but there's no saying we'd have lost either," Jackson said.
"Come on, Jacko, you never thought we'd get out of there alive. What with all those skimitars."
"Scimitars," Jackson corrected automatically. "Anyway, I don't agree we'd have been beaten. Yes, we'd have lost a lot more men, but I think we'd have pulled through. The minute they realized all their boats were being sunk and they couldn't escape - that's when they'd have broke."
"You're saying that because your gun was firing on the boats," Stafford said. "You'd have thought different if you'd been out on the jetty playing cut and thrust with that screaming 'orde."
"Staff, I don't know when we haven't been fighting screaming hordes: it doesn't make any difference whether they are French or Saracen. You're as dead whether you get your head cut off by a Saracen scimitar or a French cutlass."
"Very comforting," Stafford said. "I'll sleep better tonight knowing that!" , "All those women," Gilbert said, as if talking to himself. "Just imagine, if those Arabs were raiding a town in France and carrying off all the young women. It is too horrible to think about."
"I know what you're going to say," Stafford said. "We have to take any risk to rescue the women. But 'ow are the Italian husbands left behind going to treat those women after we've rescued them? After they've been in an A-rab brothel for a few weeks? I'll tell you: they won't want anything to do with them. It's the women I feel sorry for. They're doomed if they stay in the brothels, and they're doomed if we rescue them. All these Italian men have a rotten streak in them: the streak of pride. They're quick to see an insult, but they won't be big enough to forgive those women something they couldn't avoid. If anyone's to blame it is the men, for not fighting off the Saracens."
"You're probably right, Staff," Jackson said, "but there's nothing we can do about it. Just rescue them and hope for the best."
"Kill as many Saracens as you can, that's the only revenge," Rossi said. "You're right about the Italian men; it's one thing I'm not proud about. Not that Sicilians are real Italians," he added.
"But it would be the same if the women were Genoese,'' Stafford persisted. "You chaps from Genoa would still treat them wrongly."
"We would and it would be unfair," Rossi agreed. "But that's the way life is, and you can't change it."
"Give the bread barge a fair wind," Stafford told Rossi, who was sitting at the outboard end of the table. "I'm hungry." He took out one of the hard biscuits that passed for bread and automatical!) rapped it on the table before starting to eat it. "These have gone soft already," he grumbled, inspecting it carefully for weevils. "I dunno, salt beef is too hard and the bread is too soft. This commission's lasted too long."
"You're getting soft; I don't know about the bread," Jackson said. "Must be old age. The years are beginning to show, Staff."
"Beginning to show!" Stafford exclaimed. "What about you? Is that baldness I see - or are you growing up through your hair?"
"We're all growing old," Gilbert said lugubriously. "Seeing each other every day, we don't notice it."
"Be that as it may," Stafford said, "Jacko's still losing his hair."
"He might be, but he's still the handsomest American on board the Calypso!" Rossi said unexpectedly.
"That's not difficult, since he's the only one," Stafford growled "Why, his head will soon take a shine."
Ramage sat squarely at his desk and put Southwick's two sketches in front of him. He looked at them for a few moments and then commented: "We're lucky: Sidi Rezegh could have been a lot more difficult."
"We'll need the right wind," Southwick said. "It's got to have a lot of north or south in it, if we are to get in and out."
"With the soldiers, we have enough men so that we can tow out if necessary," Ramage said grimly. "We can tow out taking our time."
"We'll have to watch out for the fort. The fact that none of the men saw sentries up there doesn't mean that the guns are out of action."
"No, it doesn't," Ramage agreed. "But what are the chances of them being usable? When was Sidi Rezegh last attacked? Not once in the last hundred years, I expect. So the gun carriages will probably be rotten or worm-eaten, and so all the rope work will be, too. The powder may not be damp because it is a dry climate, but I wouldn't like to be the man that fired those guns. The recoil will probably send them flying over the ramparts."
"It had better, because that fort's built so the guns can rake all of us as we lie at the quay."
"Yes, but the Saracens would have to pass us to get to the fort -don't forget that."
"We can hope," Southwick said, giving one of his famous sniffs, one which Ramage interpreted as expressing doubt.
"Well, what have we got?" Ramage said, picking up the diagram which Southwick was going to redraw as a chart. It showed Sidi Rezegh as a rectangular-shaped port lying north and south along an east coast which was backed by sand dunes and palm trees. It had a northern and an eastern breakwater to form the harbour, with the town on the west side opposite the harbour entrance which was at the bottom right-hand corner - at the north-east end, in other words. The northern stone breakwater - a relic of its Roman origins, Ramage thought - had a small, round fort, with the four guns on the top at the seaward end.
The quay, lying east and west, ran from the fort to the town. A third of the way along the harbour side of the town stood the barracks, in which the slaves were locked when they were not in the galleys. Fifty yards further along stood a white stone building which was the brothel. The mosque stood further inland from the barracks. And that was it, apart from a shoal lying north and south right in the middle of the harbour. The galleys were usually anchored between the shoal and the eastern breakwater.
There was enough room for the Calypso, Amalie and the two sloops to lie one beyond the other along the northern breakwater, the nearest sloops being only fifty yards from the barracks. And if there was north in the wind all four ships would be able to get away by drifting off the quay under foretopsails and then, with a bit of smart sail handling, wearing round to avoid drifting on to the shoal and then luffing up to get through the entrance. With a south wind they would need to approach the quay at a sharper angle, dropping an anchor so they would be able to pull themselves off.
"It could be worse," Ramage said, putting down the chart "And, more to the point, at least we know what it looks like."
"I'll draw it up then," Southwick said. "Six copies each of the chart and the map."
"Combine the two," Ramage said. "The less paperwork the better. The major should be able to follow a chart as well as a map!"
"Very well," said Southwick, relieved at not having to draw maps. "I think we'll end up with some very adequate charts."
That evening the three captains, the major, Aitken and Southwick were crowded into Ramage's cabin. Roper of the Amalie sat in the armchair, the major shared the settee with King of the Betty sloop and Payne of the Rose sloop.
Southwick and Aitken sat on chairs brought from the coach and all except Aitken held copies of the chart of Sidi Rezegh. Ramage tapped the chart on the desk in front of him, looked round at the men and said: "I trust you have all studied this."
They all murmured that they had. Ramage then decided they should all hear what the major suggested. "Well, Major, what has the Army to say? How do you see the attack?"
The major, Henry Golightly of the 65th Foot, was a tall, sandy-haired man who was regarded as taciturn by his regiment but who enjoyed the company of naval officers because they encouraged him to talk. He coughed, as if it was expected of him, and then said: "I know nothing about what your ships can do, but as far as I'm concerned we need surprise. If the figures I have heard prove correct, we're going to be heavily outnumbered. So we have to use surprise.
"That's the first thing. Then I'd like my troops put ashore on the quay and then with as many of your sailors and Marines as you can spare, I propose we rush the barracks, free the men, and then go on to the brothel to free the women. I would keep the force together to concentrate them: all the men to attack the barracks before going on to free the women.
"If there's any chance of trouble from that fort, then we need to detach thirty men to silence it. If it isn't manned, then our men should be able to stop the Saracens getting along the quay to it -they would have to pass our ships first."
Ramage nodded, pleased with what the major said. "Thank you, Major: your ideas seem to coincide with mine. Captain Roper, what do you think?"
"I agree surprise is about the only ally we have. It seems to me we have to wait for a wind with some north or south in it - waiting out of sight if necessary. And then I think that quay is long enough for all four ships to get alongside. After that - well, Major Golightly has said all that need be said."
Ramage gestured towards King, who cleared his throat vigorously. "The only trouble I see so far is that we haven't used our guns to clear the streets. If all four ships go alongside the quay, none of them can bring any guns to bear - except bowchasers - on the barracks area. I'm wondering if there isn't enough water for me and the Rose to get alongside the wall next to the barracks, at right angles to the quay. From there we should be able to cover the whole area and keep up a brisk fire until Major Golightly's force arrives.
"Then, once the barracks are cleared and if the Saracens are in any numbers, we can warp along the wall and keep up a hot fire on this brothel, so that the women can be rescued. It might be better if they were brought to the sloops, rather than led all the way round to the frigates. It's just an idea which occurred to me."
"And a very good idea it is," Ramage said. "Southwick, do you think there's enough water along that wall for the sloops to get in there?"
The master consulted his original diagram. "I have only two soundings along there - well, not soundings, of course, but guesses by the former prisoners. One is fifteen feet and the other twenty. That's enough for the sloops. Providing there aren't any rocks along there," he added cautiously. "I'm fairly sure there aren't any shoals."
"Very well," said Ramage. "Now, how about you, Mr Payne?"
"I agree with King, sir. I think we should risk it. We should be able to lay down an effective covering fire for the troops, Marines and sailors coming round from the frigates. And, as King says, we can warp along to cover the building with the women in it."
Ramage looked at Golightly. "Well, Major, how does that idea strike you?"
"I like it," Golightly said emphatically. "I didn't think the sloops could get alongside there, but if they can give us covering fire it means the Saracens can't reinforce the guards at the barracks. And putting the women on board the sloops is a good idea: I didn't like the idea of them having to run all that way back to the frigates some of them might be in a very distressed state. So, yes, I think it a splendid idea, absolutely splendid!"
Ramage smiled at King. "Well, Commander, thank you very much: everyone seems in agreement with your idea. I must confess myself slightly jealous of your shallow draught: I dare not risk trying to get the frigates alongside over there, but it seems you are going to see all the action."
King grinned in reply and said: "From what I've heard and read about you, sir, in the West Indies as well as the Mediterranean, it won't hurt you to have something of a back seat for once!"
Ramage nodded and laughed. "We'll see. You might find my fellows at the barracks before you have had time to open fire."
He thought for a few moments and then looked round at the men, who were waiting expectantly. "Very well," he said, "we will wait just over the horizon for a wind with some south or north in it. Then we will sail in. And this is how we'll attack." He then outlined his ideas, modified by Jason King's suggestion about the sloops.
When he had finished he said: "Tomorrow morning we have one last exercise, embarking the troops, Marines and sailors, and landing them on the beach. I'm not concerned with the beach pan of it, but we might change our plans at the last moment and need to use the boats."
It was easy to spot where Sidi Rezegh was yet still stay beyond the horizon and out of sight of the Saracens: Sidi Rezegh was midway between four humpbacked hills, two to the north and two to the south, and quite unmistakable.
The wind was light, from the west, and when he had worked out the noon sight Southwick commented to Ramage: "There's half a knot of current, and it's probably due to the wind."
Judging the strength of the current along the coast of Sicily and in the channel over to the Tunisian coast was always difficult: the usual eastgoing current sometimes turned into a counter-current as it swept into the great gulf along the east coast of Tunisia, and became a hostage to the wind: a prolonged westerly wind could set up a two-knot eastgoing current; an easterly wind could set up a current going west at a couple of knots or more. And a light wind or a period of calms could mean no current at all. It was an area not favoured by navigators: a few days' scirocco hiding the sun with dust haze or cloud could prevent sights and bring a lot of guesswork into navigation.
"We're about eleven miles due north of Sidi Rezegh. As close as we need to go until we get the wind we want," Southwick added.
Ramage agreed. "We don't want to be spotted by any Saracen vessel going into Sidi Rezegh, but even if we're sighted by one of them this far out they'd never guess our destination."
He turned to Kenton, who was the officer of the deck. "Make a signal to the flotilla to heave-to, and stand by to heave-to this ship when I give the word."
After Kenton passed the instructions to Orsini, who was in charge of signals, he picked up the speaking trumpet and started giving orders preparing to heave-to.
The seamen running to the rigging had to pick their way over the bodies of soldiers who, finding it too hot below, were allowed to lie down on the deck. Many of them had stripped down to trousers; already some were red from sunburn, although Ramage had given instructions through Major Golightly that no man should be bare for more than an hour.
Now it was a question of waiting: being patient and waiting for the wind to swing north or south. It rarely stayed west for any length of time, according to Southwick, although these were waters that Ramage did not know. It was annoying to have to wait; yet again Ramage cursed that he had not been born with more patience.
Within ten minutes the Calypso was hove-to with the Amalie, Rose and Betty lying to leeward, pitching slightly in the barely perceptible swell. There was just enough movement and little enough wind for Ramage to detect the smell of the bilges. There was always a few inches of water that the pumps could not suck out, and which stank. Normally, with a good breeze blowing through the ship, the smell was not too offensive. But now, with just enough movement to stir up the bilges but not enough breeze to clear the ship of the smell, Ramage found it unpleasant, and cursed the shipbuilders who could not build a pump that cleared those last few inches. It was very unfair on the worthy French shipbuilders who had constructed the Calypso in the first place, because no ship that Ramage knew of had such a pump. The smell of bilges was something that one lived with.
As Ramage stood at the quarterdeck rail, he tried to think of what was expected of him as the senior officer of a little flotilla, but he could think of nothing except that perhaps, while they were held up, hove-to and waiting for a fair wind, he ought to invite the captains over for dinner. He thought about it and then decided he had not the patience to go through the ritual of being polite to strangers. He would have to invite Major Golightly, but he quite enjoyed the soldier's company. The man had travelled, and he had kept his eyes open. He had spent five years in India, and had a fund of stories about life out there. He had also served in the East Indies and the West, and it seemed that he had only just missed meeting Ramage in the West Indies on a dozen occasions.
One thing for which Ramage liked him was that he shared Ramage's loathing for Antigua. He had many unhappy memories of guard duty on Shirley Heights, the high cliffs overlooking English Harbour, and at Fort St James, guarding the capital, St John. He had been intrigued to find that the Calypso had been captured from the French off Martinique, to the south, and then taken to English Harbour to be fitted out as a British ship of war. When Ramage had told him of the inefficiency and corruption he had found among the dockyard workers at English Harbour Golightly had been sympathetic: it seemed the Army was in no better state, there being constant complaints about the quality and quantity of rations, with the men once threatening to mutiny.
Ramage supposed there was the same corruption in the dockyards and barracks in England and then found himself doubting it. He had never come across it so obviously in England. There was probably corruption in the dockyards but it was confined to the workmen (and probably the port admirals): it did not affect the ships and their captains as it did in the West Indies. It was as though the tropical sun made morals fester; that once removed from England men decided they were going to get rich, no matter who suffered or was cheated. A British ship of war cheated by some dockyard official was suffering as though harmed by the enemy. English Harbour was the worst offender in the West Indies, but how did it compare with Gibraltar, or Malta?
The real fault, he realized, lay with the Admiralty and the Navy Board and, for that matter, with the government. He had been browsing through the Royal Kalendar recently when he came across a particularly glaring case of nepotism. Coming under the Pay Office was the Pay Branch for Paying Seamen's Wages. The Deputy Paymaster in London was John Swaffield, paid lb660 a year. The Deputy Paymaster at Portsmouth was John Swaffield junior, paid lb440 a year, while the Deputy Paymaster at Plymouth was Joseph Swaffield, also paid lb440. What was more significant was that they each had a deputy, paid lb330 a year. In other words, they left their deputy to do the work. But the Swaffields did not confine their activities (or lack of) to the Pay Branch: in the next column, under Victualling Branch, was another one of them: the Cashier of the Victualling for Paying Bills, was G. Swaffield, paid lb660 a year.
Nor was this sort of thing confined to the Admiralty: he remembered the pages headed "British Governments in America and the West Indies", where Jamaica seemed a favourite spot for absentees. The Receiver in Chancery was the Hon. P. C. Wyndham; the Secretary was the Hon. Charles Wyndham and, most surprisingly of all, the Clerk of the Court was Evan Nepean - who was earning lb4,000 a year as Secretary to the Board of Admiralty in London.
It was very doubtful if the Wyndhams or Nepean had ever been to Jamaica; it was even doubtful if they could find it on a map without a careful search. But they - and dozens more like them -were paid for the job they never did. If there was any work to be done they hired a substitute: there was a good profit in paying a man lb50 a year for doing a job for which you were paid lb660. And, of course, in the islands it was possible to keep things in the family -as in Bermuda, for instance. The President of the Council was the Hon. H. Tucker; the Secretary and Treasurer was H. Tucker junior (presumably the President's son); while the Speaker was the Hon. James Tucker, and the Surveyor was John H. Tucker. There were dozens of other examples, though the names concerned he could not remember. In the West Indies, he knew very well, it was not unusual for someone comfortably resident in England to have two or three jobs in islands a thousand miles apart - jobs which he obviously could never carry out.
If you were paid for a job you never did, or paid very well to do a job for which you hired a deputy at a sixth of the salary, that was, as far as Ramage was concerned, corruption; it was legally stealing from the nation. Well, in the Royal Navy you could not be paid for commanding two ships at once!
He remembered a cynical comment his father had made some years ago, when Ramage had commented at the time on what he had found in the then current Royal Kalendar. "Corruption, my boy, makes the world go round. Great men have tried to put an end to it, but they all failed because always there are greedy men."
Aitken was pointing up at the clouds. "The highest ones are coming from the north, sir," he commented.
"There's no sign of a veer down here."
"Perhaps during the night, sir."
"Perhaps," Ramage said. "Try and time it so that we can get under way at dawn!"