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CHAPTER NINETEEN

Southwick handed him the slate on which was drawn the plan of the frigate and, scattered with soundings, the rough outline of the sandbank on which the Calypso had grounded. Ramage saw that the sandbank was halfmoon-shaped and stuck out from the quay so that both the Calypso and the Amalie had just caught the eastern edge of it, and there was deeper water to larboard.

"Very conveniently placed to stop us getting alongside," Ramage said bitterly. He looked at the soundings and took into consideration the Calypso's draft. "Another foot and we'd have gone over it."

"At least we're not hard on," Southwick said. "We must just be perched on it, like a starling on a fence."

Ramage nodded. "Backed forecourse, topsail and topgallant should swing the bow off. Main and mizentopsails set and shivering should keep us under control and see us heading for the entrance as soon as we're clear and can wear round."

He thought for a few moments. "Has Roper seen these soundings?"

"Yes, sir, a couple of the Amalie's boats helped with the soundings and made a copy."

"Well, if he's at all worried, he'll see what we're doing," Ramage said, trying not to show his doubts of Roper.

Ramage glanced along the quay and saw that the Saracens were still grouped at the end, obviously concerned that the guns would open fire on them again. Well, there was no point in wasting time.

"Are all the Italians below now?"

"Yes, sir," Aitken replied. "Orsini soon got them sorted out. They were excited at being on board a British frigate, apparently, and grateful that their womenfolk are in the sloops."

Aitken added: "They were anxious about how they were going to get home again, but Orsini reassured them. Told them how we had saved the men and women at Licata. I don't know what else he told them, but il Commandante is already their hero, sir!"

"I'm glad to hear it," Ramage said briskly. "Now, let's see about getting this ship afloat again."

He gave Southwick and Aitken detailed instructions. The risk was, he said, that the Calypso's bow would swing off all right under the thrust of the backed forecourse, topsail and topgallant, but unless the after sails - kept shivering and with no weight on them -were quickly brought into action there was nothing to stop the frigate blowing on to the big shoal in the middle of the harbour.

"We haven't much room to play around in," he said. "The moment we are off the sandbank, we must wear and then head for the entrance. Missing that shoal in the middle is going to be a close-run thing. If we go aground there, it'll be to leeward of us, and that'll mean laying out anchors to haul ourselves off."

Aitken grinned confidently and said: "It's like one of those imaginary situations that the Board set you when you're taking your examination for lieutenant!"

"The only difference," Ramage replied, "is that if you failed then you just carried on as a midshipman or master's mate. If you fail here, you might end your days in the galleys!"

Aitken turned and looked at the five galleys, riding at anchor between the outer breakwater and the shoal in the middle of the harbour. "They're bigger than I thought. The two we captured at Licata were smaller."

"These row another twenty or thirty oars," Southwick said. "But they look clumsier than the ones we captured. Much beamier, too."

"Let's get on with it," Ramage said impatiently. The manoeuvre was going to be difficult, and the consequence of failure did not bear thinking about.

Were the decks clear for the seamen? "What about the soldiers -are they below as well?"

"They're all below, sir: I wanted the ship clear when we start to get off the shoal."

"Very well. We'll start off with a backed topsail: that may be enough, with the topgallant. I'd just as soon not set the course."

He estimated that the wind, still from the north, was not blowing at more than ten knots. A backed topsail in a ten-knot wind was not going to apply much sideways thrust, but he wanted to get off with as little as possible: the other shoal in the middle was lurking like a trap.

Aitken picked up the speaking trumpet and shouted the order for topmen. Soon the men were running up the ratlines like spiders, and then out along the yards. Quickly they let go the gaskets and the sail flopped down like a tired curtain.

A quick order to the afterguard and men hauled down on the halyard and lifted the yard into position. Another order braced the yard and yet another saw the sheets trimmed. Now the sail was flat, pressing against the mast and trying to thrust the ship sideways, away from the quay and off the sandbank.

Ramage watched the bowsprit and jibboom outlined against the town but they did not move. The topsail was not enough.

"Topgallant, if you please Mr Aitken."

The first lieutenant gave a sequence of similar orders and the topgallant was let fall and sheeted a'back.

Ramage watched the jibboom against the houses beyond. There was a slight movement.

"Mr Aitken - let fall the main and mizentopsails: I want them shivering!"

More topmen raced up the other two masts and cast off the gaskets. Halyards were hauled and then the yards were carefully braced and the sails trimmed so that the wind blew down both sides of the canvas, without exerting any thrust. The sails flapped and shivered, like drying laundry.

As Ramage watched the bow moved agonizingly slowly away from the- quay with the two backed sails pressed hard against the mast. The pressure was just enough to lever the Calypso's bow off the sandbank. Ramage walked over to the starboard side of the quarterdeck and looked over the side. Yes, the sea forward was turning muddy as the keel slid across the sand and stirred up the water.

He looked across at Southwick and grinned. "Slow but sure!"

"Aye," said the old master, running his hand through his hair after carefully removing his hat, "at least we know where the shoal is if we have to come here again!"

"Once is enough," Ramage said. "Almost too much!"

Foot by foot the Calypso's bow swung clear, carrying the ship into deeper water; any minute now, Ramage realized, she would come clear of the shoal so that there would have to be fast work to get her under control again and heading for the entrance. He looked longingly at the galleys: a pity he could not give them a broadside, but the angle was wrong and anyway the frigate would be swinging too fast for the gunners to do any good.

Yet without slaves to row them, the galleys were no use to the Saracens. What did they use them for anyway - to raid to get more slaves? Or did they prey on passing ships? If so they must confine themselves to coastal traffic: Ramage could not remember any complaints that they were capturing passing British ships.

Now the bow was swinging faster and he had time to look astern at the Amalie. She was just letting fall a topsail; obviously Roper was waiting for the Calypso to get clear so that he could manoeuvre without risk of collision. How carefully Roper must be watching the Calypso, and how relieved he must have been when he saw her starting to swing - an indication that the Amalie would be able to get off without too much trouble, since she had hit the shoal astern of the Calypso and had driven that much less on to the sand.

Aitken was standing at the fore end of the quarterdeck with the speaking trumpet in his hand, and Ramage looked across at Jackson, who was the quartermaster for what was going to be a very difficult operation. For the moment there was nothing for Jackson to do, since without headway on the frigate the rudder was not acting. And it was a good thing that the frigate was sliding off the shoal by the bow, otherwise there would have been a risk that the sand could tear the rudder off.

The wind was fluking: it was blowing generally at ten knots or so but occasionally there were stronger puffs, and each puff put more pressure on the backed sails. Gradually the bow came round so that the frigate was lying at an angle of forty-five degrees to the quay and a glance at the slate showed that she must be almost off the shoal.

"Stand by," he said quietly to Aitken and then called to Jackson: "Ready at the wheel there - we'll be off in a few moments!"

And then suddenly the Calypso was free: she swung even more to larboard and the foretopsail and topgallant gave a bang as the ship turned and the sails filled with the wind on the after side. Ramage felt the frigate come alive as she refloated, the deck moving under his feet, and he shouted to Aitken: "Sheet home those after sails!"

It was a strange order but as the sails were set and had been shivering it saved time. Yards were braced and sheets trimmed and as Ramage snapped a helm order at Jackson the frigate luffed up slightly until she was heading for the entrance, well clear of the Amalie and under complete control. The feared swing out to the shoal in the middle of the harbour had not happened; the Calypso had come off the shoal smoothly enough for Ramage to keep control.

The ship started pitching slightly as she passed through the entrance into the open sea and Ramage looked back to see the Saracens running along the quay, waving their scimitars, angry but helpless now that their erstwhile victims were sailing out. Ramage said a silent prayer of thanks that the Arabs had not used their cannons: if the fort had been equipped with four effective 18-pounders they could have pounded the two frigates all the time that they were stuck on the shoal. Not only that, the frigates would not have been able to bring a gun to bear to fire back.

Ramage looked astern and saw that the Amalie now had her foretopgallant set in addition to the topsail, and she was already half off the shoal.

The Betty and the Rose were lying hove-to a mile from the entrance and Ramage told Aitken to steer for them. "We need a course for Marsala, Mr Southwick," he said to the master, who bustled below to consult his charts.

"We've never had so many men on board, sir," Aitken commented. "I don't know how many Italians there are, but it must be getting on for three hundred and then we have a hundred and fifty soldiers. With more than two hundred of our ship's company, we are carrying upwards of six hundred and fifty men."

"Well, Admiral Rudd will be pleased. We've carried out his orders, and now all we have to do is deliver these Italians back to their homes - and reunite them with their families. Many of their wives will be in the sloops. It'll be a series of tearful reunions. Brace yourself for an emotional time!"

"I shall burst into tears on every occasion," Aitken said laconically. "I can never resist an excuse for a good cry."

A few minutes later Ramage looked over the taffrail to see the Amalie sailing out through the entrance under all plain sail. He pointed at Orsini. "Make the signal for captains to come on board," he said. It was necessary to make some plans, otherwise their arrival at Marsala and the other ports would be chaos.

As soon as Orsini had attended to hoisting the signal and seeing it answered, Ramage said to him: "I have a tedious job for you. I want you to board the Amalie and then the Betty and Rose to sort out where the Italians come from. I don't want to go to Marsala, for instance, and then find out we have no one on board from there." "I understand, sir," Orsini said. "I only wish these Sicilians didn't have such thick accents: I find it hard to understand them."

"What about me?" Ramage protested. "Italian is not even my native language."

"Sicily is a long way from Tuscany, sir," Orsini said apologetically. "Still, it could be worse; they could be from Bergamo, and then no one would understand them."

Ramage laughed: the accent of Bergamo, in northern Italy, was reckoned to be the hardest to understand. "We'll keep away from there."

He gave orders for the Calypso to heave-to near the sloops and wait for the Amalie. Half an hour later the other three captains were coming on board, all cheerful and, as King said, glad to be out of Sidi Rezegh.

Ramage sat them down in his cabin and then said: "I hope you have totals of the number of Italians you have on board? I am sending one of my officers who speaks Italian round to each ship so that he can see where they all come from and draw up lists. Otherwise we shall have problems sending them to their homes."

Roper said: "I have two hundred and twenty-eight Italians on board: all very excited, but we can control them."

"Good," Ramage said. "We have three hundred and three, so that is five hundred and thirty-one men altogether."

"I have ninety-seven women," King said. "All hysterical but they are settling down now we have given them some food."

"I have seventy-seven women," Payne reported. "Much the same condition but giving them food and water quietened them down."

"Ah, five hundred and thirty-one men and one hundred and seventy-four women - more than I expected. No wonder the people were so upset in the ports - they must have lost just about every ablebodied man and nubile woman. The Saracens were very thorough."

"What sort of conditions were they keeping them in?" -King asked.

Ramage shook his head. "Unbelievable. The stench in the barracks and the brothel was incredible: there were no sanitary arrangements at all. I should think the Saracens lose a lot of men and women from disease."

Ramage unrolled a chart in front of him at his desk. "Now we have to take all these people home, so we'll go to Marsala first, and then work our way along the coast. It's going to take time, because I do not imagine you have any Italian-speaking officers."

The three captains agreed they had not.

"Well, I have one, so he is going to have to do all the translating. Once we anchor off a port the men should recognize where they are, but the women probably won't. So my officer will have to sort them out.

"They'll all be very excited, so make sure the boats you use to send them on shore are not crowded. And give strict orders to your boats' crews - there will be plenty of wine flowing. If the Italians invite you to any reception or anything like that, they'll have to do it through my officer - a young midshipman called Orsini - and you can accept, sending men whom you can trust not to desert or get beastly drunk. Any man misbehaving himself will be punished severely-; I don't want all we have been through for these people spoiled by a few drunken scenes."

Roper asked: "Would it be better if we sent just a token number of men to any festivities?"

The Amalie and the two sloops probably faced the risk that men would desert at the first opportunity and end up having "R", for "Run", put against their names in the muster book. Ramage was thankful that he could even send the Calypso's men away on leave and have them all return on time, but they had served with him a long time and earned a lot of prize money. He knew that he was lucky: not many ships could trust all their men, either not to desert or to stay sober. Not that he could trust all the Calypsos to stay sober; that would be asking too much.

"Each captain must make up his own mind," he told Roper. "I shall hold each one of you responsible for the behaviour of your men, so it will be up to you. But if the mayors give out invitations I want at least some men at any festivities, if only out of politeness. I am sure all of you have enough men you trust to make some sort of showing."

Looking round at the three captains, Ramage had his doubts. It was probably not desertion but drunkenness they were worried about: there were few seamen that could safely be left to drink a reasonable amount: for too many of them wine or spirits represented oblivion, to them a blessed state even if it resulted in a flogging.

"Right," Ramage said, "Marsala will be our first port. Are there any questions?"

There was none and the captains left the cabin and returned to their boats, and fifteen minutes later the Calypso hoisted the signal to get under way. The wind had backed a little, to north-west, and as the ships began to roll slightly the wailing started as the rescued men and women in the flotilla began being seasick.

Major Golightly joined Ramage on the quarterdeck. "I am a lucky man," he commented.

Ramage raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"Seasickness. I am one of the lucky ones who seem to be immune."

"How about your men?"

Golightly shrugged his shoulders. "About a third of them suffer from it. And having all these Italians retching and wailing isn't helping much."

Ramage grimaced sympathetically. "It won't be for long," he said. "Only a few hours, and we shall be anchored off Marsala."

"I have three men who are so seasick at anchor that they cannot function. They could not even take part in the landing at Sidi Rezegh."

"The poor devils: they're going to suffer until we get back to Naples."

"Yes, they didn't bargain for sea passages when they took the King's shilling."

Golightly was silent for a while, and then asked: "Tell me, Ramage, are you satisfied with the way we carried out the attack?"

Ramage was not quite sure what Golightly meant. "I was more than satisfied with your soldiers," he said. "I am angry with myself that this ship went aground, although there was always such a risk since we did not have proper charts."

"I think you did brilliantly," Golightly said, suddenly and spontaneously. "Particularly the way you used the ship's guns to drive off the last attack. I thought at first the damned Saracens had us trapped. I hadn't realized you could train your guns round so far."

"We were lucky," Ramage admitted. "That was one of the reasons why I was angry with myself for going aground - we could not haul the ship round to bring all the guns to bear where we wan ted them."

"You didn't do too badly!" Golightly said.

"I know, but if we'd been able to bring our broadside to bear on the square in front of the barracks we wouldn't have lost so many men."

"How many did you lose in the end?"

"Eighteen dead and twenty-six wounded," Ramage said. "About the same for the Amalie. A high price."

"Yes, add them to my seventeen dead and twenty-three wounded and it gets less of a bargain."

"About fifty-three dead - I am not sure about the Amalie's figures - and some seventy-five wounded. More than 125 dead and wounded."

"When you look at it like that it doesn't seem such a great victory," Golightly said soberly.

"I don't know about your general, but my admiral will be satisfied: we rescued the Italians, and that is what we were sent to do. Admirals tend not to worry about the price as long as their orders are carried out."

"Generals are the same: I shan't be blamed. In fact it often works the other way - the bigger the butcher's bill, the higher the praise."

"It's the same in the Navy. Any captain fighting a ship-to-ship action in which he loses half his ship's company is regarded as a hero. No one asks if he fought the ship properly and could have avoided such casualties."

"Well, we've killed enough of our men to be secure from blame," Golightly said bitterly.



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER TWENTY



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