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When the flotilla arrived off Marsala, Ramage signalled to the two sloops to anchor as close in as possible, wanting to avoid a long trip in open boats for the women.

The Marsala men on board the Calypso had been separated and now waited on deck. As soon as a boat could be hoisted out, Orsini was sent off to the Amalie, and after he had separated the Marsala men there, he went on to the Betty and the Rose, to check up on the women. In the meantime Ramage ordered the cutter prepared, with Jackson as coxswain, and had himself rowed ashore.

He was met on the quay by an anxious mayor and many other leading citizens of Marsala, all agitated and puzzled at the sudden reappearance of the flotilla. The only explanation they could think of was that they came to warn of another attack by the Saracens.

Ramage heard the mayor's excited questions and then smiled. "Yes, I have returned," he said, speaking very clearly so that the whole crowd could hear him, "but not to warn you that the Saracens are coming. No, the Saracens will not be back for a long time. No, I bring you your men and women back again. They are thin and frightened, but they are alive and unharmed."

For several moments the mayor stood transfixed, unable to believe his ears. "You have . . . brought back . . . our men and women?"

Ramage patted him on the shoulder, hoping that physical contact would reassure the old man. "Yes, our boats will be bringing them to this quay in the next half an hour. You have time to warn your people to be down here to welcome them."

The old man suddenly burst into tears, and then he embraced Ramage, enveloping him in the smell of garlic. "Do you hear that?" he cried to the crowd. "He brings back our people! Mamma mia, what a man! Did you kill many Saraceni?" "Enough," Ramage said shortly. "We taught them a lesson. And now you can have a big celebration."

"Oh, we will, we will. Will your honour attend and bring your sailors?"

Before Ramage could reply a woman weeping hysterically had flung herself round Ramage's neck. "My man, have you brought back my man?" she cried.

Ramage, suddenly fearful that some of the men might have died before he arrived at Sidi Rezegh, said placatingly: "I am sure he is all right: wait here and you will see."

The mayor insisted on taking Ramage to his house for a glass of wine, asking to be told all the details of the rescue. Ramage tried to describe it in terms the old man would understand, but found difficulty in describing the lethal effect of a round of caseshot from the Calypso's carronades. But the old mayor was content with what he heard. He then declared: "Today will be a festa! And tomorrow. And the next day. Oh, what a holiday! As soon as the priest hears, you will hear the church bell ringing out. Oh, what a day!"

It was a good half an hour before Ramage could get back to the quay and by that time the Calypso's red cutter, with Orsini on board, was bringing the first of the men on shore.

Ramage was startled when several women started shrieking as they recognized their men sitting in the boat, and by the time the boat was alongside the quay more women, all of them laughing and crying with excitement, were jostling each other and too excited to talk sensibly.

Ramage found himself strangely moved by the touching reunions: each of the men had a dozen or more men, women and children round him, many of them patting him or holding on, as if to reassure themselves of his presence. Every five minutes or so the mayor ran up to Ramage and shook his hand again, babbling his thanks, and calling to whoever was nearest: "This is the man! You owe it all to him!"

Orsini, who had come on shore, said: "You ought to stand as mayor, sir; you are sure of being elected!"

Eventually Ramage left to go back to the Calypso, by which time the boats of the Betty and the Rose had started bringing in the women and the Amalie's boats were carrying in more men. On board the frigate Ramage told Aitken: "Send twenty-five men on shore with Orsini. They can join in the celebrations at the invitation of the mayor. But warn them what will happen if they get drunk. Tell the other men that they will get their chance at the other ports."

He thought a moment and then said: "You go as well, and take Southwick with you: you deserve a little celebration. Orsini will introduce you to the mayor."

"Why don't you come, sir? You haven't had a chance to relax for years."

And suddenly the prospect seemed too good to miss. "I believe I will," Ramage said. "It will do Kenton good to be responsible for a whole flotilla!"

The calls on the other ports were as touching as the one at Marsala: in each case the mayor thought their arrival heralded bad news; in every case the town then went wild when the men and women were landed, and seamen and Marines from the ships went on shore to join in the celebrations.

Ramage suggested to Golightly that some soldiers should go too, but the major refused. He knew the result, he said: the men would get beastly drunk, start fighting among themselves, and some of them would desert.

"They've no personal loyalty to me," he explained. "I only took command of them five weeks ago. Your men are loyal to you personally; they know that getting drunk or misbehaving will upset you, and they care about that," he told Ramage. "With your permission, we'll give my fellows an extra tot: that'll satisfy them."

Ramage agreed and the soldiers seemed satisfied. It seemed that - for those who were not seasick - just being afloat was a good enough change from drilling on a hot and dusty square in Naples. Those who had been seasick were still feeling shaky enough to be thankful to be left alone in their hammocks.

After the final port, Empedocle, the boats were hoisted in and the four ships prepared for the voyage back to Naples. Southwick, standing at the forward end of the quarterdeck, said to Ramage: "I wonder what the Admiral will have in store for us this time."

"Nothing as complicated as last time," Ramage said. "At least, I don't expect so. Probably escorting some convoy. How would you like a beat to windward all the way to Gibraltar, escorting half a dozen stubborn merchantmen? No excitement, except chasing the mules back into position after they've reduced sail for the night."

Southwick groaned and said with a grin: "There must be something between charging into Sidi Rezegh and escorting merchantmen!"

"I'm sure there is, but I don't think we stand high enough in Admiral Rudd's estimation to get it. No, my old friend, resign yourself to a convoy."

Southwick seemed to have lost his sense of humour temporarily and gave a prodigious sniff. "There are times when I long for the West Indies. When I look back it always seems something was happening there."

"Don't forget we once escorted a convoy from Barbados all the way back to England, and thanks to that madman it ended up with me being court-martialled for something I didn't do."

Southwick chuckled at the memory. "Yes, that was quite a trial. One of few courts martial where the accused ends up a hero!"

"Don't remind me of it: it still gives me cold shivers."

Southwick laughed heartily. "Very exciting it was; I can remember it almost word for word."

"So can I," Ramage said. "That's why I wish I could forget it."

The voyage back to Naples was uneventful. The wind gradually backed to the south-west, giving them a beat as they sailed round the western end of Sicily, but after that they had a soldier's wind to give them a straight run into the Bay of Naples, where the flotilla anchored in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

Ramage noticed that there were no new ships in the port; at the moment there were just the flagship and the two 74s, apart from a host of merchantmen and smaller craft.

After the usual salutes were fired, Ramage had himself rowed over to the flagship. Jackson and the boat's crew had smartened themselves up for the occasion, their hair neatly tied in fresh queues, newly shaven and with clean shirts and trousers. Ramage wore his second-best uniform and his Lloyd's presentation sword. He carried his own despatch on the operation and a copy of Major Golightly's report to his senior officer.

When Ramage entered the great cabin, he found Rear-Admiral Rudd in a good mood. Not jovial, but not cold and abrupt. It was a mood, Ramage suspected, which the Admiral used while he waited to see what his subordinate had to report: it would require little effort to change one way or the other. Congratulations or recriminations could flow without much effort.

"Well, Ramage, how did you get on?"

Ramage said offhandedly: "Well enough, sir. All the Sicilians the Saracens kidnapped are now safely back home. We lost about 125 soldiers, Marines and seamen dead and wounded."

"As much as that?"

"The Saracens are brave fighters and we were outnumbered, sir. I have my despatch here, and a copy of Major Golightly's report." He got up and put them on Rudd's desk.

"I'll read that later. Tell me in your own words what happened. Leave nothing out."

Ramage began with them leaving Naples, including the call at the various ports in Sicily so that Southwick could draw up a chart, and then their arrival off Sidi Rezegh. When Ramage described how the two frigates had gone aground on the shoal, the Admiral sniffed but made no comment. Finally, when Ramage had described how the women had been taken on board the Rose and Betty, and the men embarked in the Calypso and Amalie, Rudd nodded, the first indication he had made so far apart from the noncommittal sniff. Then Ramage described the Saracens' last charge and the toll taken by the Calypso's carronades.

After he had described how he had taken the men and women back to their respective towns, Rudd allowed himself a comment. "It was careless of you to go aground," he said, "but at least you carried out the rescue. The Minister will want to see a copy of your despatch, of course, and he will tell the King that his people have been restored."

"Very well, sir," Ramage said, relieved that the Admiral had not added a stronger condemnation about him going aground, a factor which had seemed to absorb him, at least temporarily.

"Now, Ramage, your ship is still provisioned for three months, less the time you took for this expedition?"

"Yes, sir," answered a puzzled Ramage.

"I may want you to go to Gibraltar. It will be a special operation and the final decision does not rest with me. I want you back here on board at noon tomorrow, is that clear?" "Yes, sir, perfectly," said Ramage, standing up ready to leave.