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Southwick was sure it meant a convoy, but Ramage pointed out that the Admiral had said the final-decision did not rest with him, which seemed to rule it out.

"It's going to be a convoy of troopships, and the Admiral has to get the General to agree to a small escort," the master persisted. "You wait and see. The Admiral wasn't expecting us back yet, and now he has a frigate to spare he's going to use us as escort. Perhaps with the sloops."

"Perhaps," Ramage agreed, because he could think of no other reason for the Admiral's enigmatic remark, "The final decision does not rest with me."

Next day he dressed in his second-best uniform again, carefully pressed by his steward, pulled on his high polished boots, straightened his silk stock and put on his Lloyd's sword. He felt no excitement: whatever Rudd had in mind would possibly be unpleasant and certainly boring, perhaps both. Rudd's attitude over the Sidi Rezegh operation had been at best grudging; whatever he had in mind was not a reward for a good job done; it was simply the next operation on the list, too unimportant for a 74, but perhaps too important for a mere sloop - so what the devil was it? Ramage gave an impatient shrug as he climbed down into the cutter and told Jackson to cast off.

Once again it was a bright sunny day with a ten-knot breeze from the west: just enough to stop the sun getting viciously hot. That was the difference between the Mediterranean and the West Indies. Out in the islands the sun was a lot hotter but there was nearly always a Trade wind blowing to keep a man cool. Here in the Mediterranean, during the long summer, the sun was often blazing hot with no cooling wind, so that one just sweltered, particularly at night when there was no breeze to blow through the cabin.

Apart from the hurricanes during the season and the particularly vile diseases for which the area was notorious, the West Indies were perfect. Almost every day of the year brought a wind between north-east and south-east, so one could plan passages with more confidence.

The cutter was rowed past a couple of tartanes which were working their way through the anchorage. The Amalie, he noticed, had not squared her yards properly: the foretopsail yard was not horizontal. At least, he thought inconsequentially, the yards are not a'cockbill, each alternate one hanging at a different angle, as a sign of mourning - the death of the captain, or the admiral. (Did admirals ever die? They seemed to have a grim hold on life. The only admiral he knew who had died was Lord Nelson, a man who deserved to live into ripe old age.) Ramage felt he was in no hurry to get to the flagship: he was tired of the Admiral Rudds of this world, devious men who never said what they really thought, and who never thought fairly in any case. Come at noon: yes, sir, I shall be prompt, with my hat under my arm and my sword clasped in the other hand. Look sir, my boots are highly polished in your honour; my steward spent an hour on them this morning.

And then the cutter was alongside the flagship and Jackson had hooked on. Ramage climbed through the entryport and was greeted by the first lieutenant, who led him to the Admiral's cabin.

Rudd was alone in the cabin and he waved Ramage to the settee, not to the chair opposite his desk.

"Sit down, we have to wait for a visitor. I may as well tell you now who he will be: I am expecting Mr Arthur Paget, his Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of the King of the Two Sicilies."

The Admiral said it with such a flourish that Ramage guessed he was supposed to look impressed. "Indeed, sir."

"Yes. And by now he will have read your despatch on the Sidi Rezegh affair - not that this is what he is coming to see me about. No, he is coming to look you over."

"I'm flattered, sir," Ramage said, knowing that the sarcasm would be lost on Rudd.

With that the Admiral picked up some papers from his desk and began reading them. Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door and the first lieutenant called: "Mr Paget is coming alongside, sir."

"Very well. I'll come down to meet him."

The Admiral got up from his desk and jammed on his hat, saying to Ramage: "Wait here."

When he came into the cabin with the Admiral, Ramage saw that Arthur Paget was a red-faced man of medium height, too fat and puffing after his exertions. He flopped down in the chair opposite the Admiral's desk and said: "I must say it is easier to call on the Army, Rudd; none of this damned messing about with boats. I just climb into my carriage!"

"Quite so, sir," Rudd said ingratiatingly, "but at least it is pleasantly cool afloat; you'll grant me that."

Paget grunted and said suddenly: "Is this the young fellow?"

"Ah yes, may I present Captain Ramage?"

As Ramage stood up, Paget said sharply. "Ramage? Not Lord Ramage, the son of the Earl of Blazey?"

"Yes, sir," Ramage said bowing slightly.

Paget turned to Rudd, "Well, that settles that - no question about it. By the way, that was a splendid effort of yours at Sidi Rezegh: I read your despatch this morning. The King will be very pleased. The war between the Sicilians and the Saracens has been going on for centuries: not often that the Sicilians come off on top."

Paget stood up and shook hands with Ramage, and then sat down again, motioning Ramage to be seated.

"What have you told him, Rudd?"

"Nothing, sir. I thought it best if I left it to you."

"Very well. Now, Ramage, the King is also involved in this. It is of the utmost importance that a passenger is carried safely to Gibraltar, where a passage onwards to England can be arranged."

Ramage nodded without saying anything.

"This passenger's life is very valuable, I must impress that upon you."

"Yes, sir."

"And it is very important that you are a good host. You will of course give up your cabin."

"Of course," Ramage said, feeling resentful.

"Very well. Then we had better introduce them," Paget said.

"My flag captain is acting as host," Rudd said. "I will send for them."

He called to the Marine sentry outside the door to pass the word for his flag lieutenant, and as soon as the man appeared he was sent off to fetch the flag captain and "our guest".

"I don't need to tell you, Ramage, that this is a very delicate situation. You must be very tactful, apart from being a good host. This person has great influence in London: one word of criticism could blight your career."

"Indeed. I will take care, sir," Ramage said, beginning to be resentful of the fact that he was being inspected like a prize bull.

The door was flung open and a woman came in, took one look at Ramage and, saying an unbelieving "Nicholas!" ran across the cabin and flung herself into his arms, kissing him on both cheeks and laughing with surprise and pleasure.

Paget, who had sprung to his feet, exclaimed: "You know each other?"

"The Marchesa di Volterra and I have met before, sir," Ramage said.

"Met before!" Gianna exclaimed. "Why, he rescued me from Bonaparte's cavalry many years ago, when I first escaped!"

Suddenly she was serious. "Nicholas, now you are married, will I still be able to stay with your parents in London? I mean, will it be proper? Will your wife mind?"

"On the contrary," Ramage said. "I hope you will go and stay with Sarah as well; we have a pleasant place in the country."

"And what ship do you have?"

"The same - the Calypso.'" Gianna laughed and clapped her hands. "And tell me - you still have my nephew Paolo, and Southwick, and Jackson, and Stafford, and Rossi - all my old friends?"

"Yes," said Ramage, "Paolo will be excited and relieved to see you - he thought you were dead. There are a few new faces, but you'll.feel at home."

Suddenly Gianna was serious. "You and your father were right," she said. "You told me not to go to Paris because the Peace would not last, and you were absolutely right. I was seized by Bonaparte's men, and thrown into prison."

"But how did you get here?" asked a puzzled Ramage.

"Eventually they took me to Volterra. The people kept on revolting and they wanted me to set up a government - a puppet government obedient to Bonaparte. But I would not. I kept on refusing- and waiting. There are still people loyal to me, and one day they helped me to escape. I knew the way from the last time I escaped, when Bonaparte first invaded Italy. I got to Florence and then to Rome, where more friends helped me to get to Naples. So here I am. And going to be your guest all the way to Gibraltar. I long to see your parents again. Tell me, your father, he won't be cross with me, will he?"

CHAPTER TWENTY | Ramage and the Saracens |