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Southwick counted the pieces of salt beef as the cook's mate lifted them out of the cask, banging each piece before he removed it to shake off the encrusted salt. Each piece of meat was as dark as old varnish and the salt was stained like muddy sand.

It would take many hours of soaking in fresh water in the steep tub to dissolve that hardened salt, the master thought to himself, and a lot of boiling afterwards before the men could get their teeth into the meat.

This cask was full of old meat: from the look of it many months had passed - even a year or more - since the carcase had been cut up in the contractor's slaughterhouse and salted down in the cask. Still, it was not as bad as some he had seen in the old days, before the Great Mutiny had led to an improvement. Then it was not unusual to find meat so hard it could be carved, looking rather like mahogany.

He continued marking the slate and looked at the side of the cask on which was stencilled the legend "54 pieces". Well, it might contain fifty-four pieces; it was not entirely unknown for the number of pieces to match what the contractor had painted on the outside, but it was rare, and the discrepancy was always on the side of the contractor.

Southwick, like every other master in the King's service doing this particular job, had to note the difference in his log, and as the cook's mate finally lifted out the last piece and Southwick looked at the tally on the slate, he could see they were fortunate: the log entry would simply say: "Opened cask of beef, marked 54 pieces, contained 52."

In theory the Navy Board claimed back from the contractor the value of the difference, but Southwick wondered if they ever did.

The seamen were cheated by the dishonest contractors, not the Navy Board: the clerks at the Navy Board had their dinner whether or not a cask was missing several pieces of meat. It was only the seamen who went without: a ship was issued with so many casks of salt beef and salt pork for a commission or voyage, and that was that: the men just had to make it last.

With the last piece taken from the cask, Southwick said: "Very well, get all this into the steep tub," gesturing at the pile of meat, most of which seemed to him to be fat or bone, and he turned to go below to make the entry in his log.

Captain Ramage, standing at the forward end of the quarterdeck, asked: "Short again?"

"Only two pieces, sir," Southwick said, adding gloomily: "The Navy Board seems to have been getting rid of some old stock: looked more like off-cuts of mahogany from the carpenter's shop than salt beef."

Ramage nodded and noted that they were lucky: it was usual for there to be half a dozen pieces missing, or even more, and much of the meat comprised chunks of fat which, when the meat was put in the coppers to cook, would float on top of the boiling water, to be skimmed off by the cook's mate and sold illicitly to the men as "slush", providing something to spread on their hard biscuits and giving the cook's mate the nickname of "Slushy". Did the cook demand his share of the proceeds?

Ramage shrugged his shoulders and found he did not care: it was a fine day with a brisk wind, just enough to raise a few white horses and the Mediterranean was unbelievably blue, as though welcoming back the Calypso after the spell in the Atlantic.

How many times had he passed through the Strait of Gibraltar up to now? A score of times? Anyway, Europa Point was a familiar enough landmark, and now the men would be commenting on being "Black Strapped", their description of being in the Mediterranean and deriving either from Black Strap Bay, on the eastern side of Gibraltar, or from the coarse Spanish red wine which would soon take the place of their rum issue, and which was not very popular.

The Calypso stretched along under all working sail, pitching slightly in the head sea, as though curtsying. Each pitch brought a slight groan from masts and yards, as though they were protesting;

every now and again the sails slatted as an unusual wave made the ship pitch more than usual, spilling the wind momentarily and then letting the sails fill again with a bang.

A sudden shout of "Deck there!" from the foremasthead sent the red-headed second lieutenant, Kenton, lunging for the speaking trumpet and shouting up an acknowledgement.

"Sail two points on the larboard bow, sir!" shouted down the lookout.

Kenton turned to Ramage, to make sure he had heard.

Ramage nodded. "How far off?"

Kenton's hail brought the answer of eight or ten miles.

Without bothering about a cast of the log, Ramage estimated the Calypso was making about seven knots. He took out his watch. It would soon be noon. "Pass the word to Mr Aitken not to secure the guns," he said. For the past hour the men had been busy at gunnery practice: without actually firing, they had been loading, running out and pretending to fire the guns, the sharp cries and the rumbling of the trucks punctuating the lazy noise of the Calypso's progress.

A sail in sight: in this position and at this time it was routine: probably another frigate bound for Gibraltar from Malta or Naples, or even an Algerine: they sneaked out of the Barbary coast ports to see what they could pick up - just pirates. The chance of the sail being French was slight: they were still licking their wounds after Trafalgar. He corrected himself: at Trafalgar they had lost many ships of the line, not frigates, so in theory the sail in sight ahead could be a French frigate, but it was not likely. The defeat of the French at Trafalgar had been a blow to their confidence as much as to the total number of ships they had: it would probably be many months before they ventured to sea again.

"Deck there, foretopmast here: there are two sail!"

Kenton answered the hail and Ramage thought: two sail meant even less chance of them being French. But soon the men would be sent to quarters, because in wartime every sail had to be treated as potentially an enemy, to be met with guns run out and a hoist of flags challenging her to reveal her identity.

Ramage realized that he could not remember the secret signal for the day and went below to his cabin, unlocking a drawer in his desk to look it up.

The secret signal comprised a table lasting three months which set out the challenge and the correct reply for each day. The table was issued by the commander-in-chief and applied only to the area he commanded. It was without doubt the most secret thing on board the ship: the penalty for allowing it to fall into enemy hands was a court martial to begin with, and no captain of a ship could expect any mercy from the court: that was made more than clear in the preamble to the signals.

The secret signal and the ship's number in the List of the Navy -they were the flags to be hoisted as soon as a strange ship was close enough to distinguish them. Unless one recognized the other ship it was always a slightly tense moment: from the very first day when one went to sea as a midshipman, one was brought up to consider every strange sail as potentially an enemy. And for most of the years since then at least half the time it usually was. He put the signals away and went back on deck.

Southwick came up the quarterdeck ladder. "A couple of sail, eh? Getting like Spithead round here!"

"Probably a couple of frigates bound for Gibraltar," Ramage said. "Or even a couple of our merchantmen with olive oil and wine."

"Could be," Southwick agreed. "It's safe enough now for them to risk sailing without a convoy."

No convoys, no escorts, Southwick thought. Escorting convoys was the dreariest job that could be given to a frigate, and it was a sign of the times that the Calypso had been sent out to the Mediterranean alone: until quite recently, almost any frigate bound for the Mediterranean from England would have to escort merchant ships; there were usually enough of them waiting to sail to make up a convoy, even if only comprising half a dozen ships. Yet, Southwick reflected, it did not matter whether there were half a dozen or the hundred more usual to or from the West Indies, there was always at least one ship that was a veritable mule, always reducing sail at night and falling behind, no matter what threats were made.

Ramage picked up his telescope and looked at the two tiny specks now coming into sight over the curvature of the earth. He calculated they were not on an opposing course, which was strange: they should be steering the reciprocal of the Calypso's course if they were bound for Gibraltar, since she had left there not long since. No, the two ships were steering more to the north-west: that much was clear from the line of their masts. Perhaps they had a different slant of wind over there, though that would not account for the course they were steering, only the trim of their sails.

Their course, he thought idly, seemed too far to the north-west for any ship not bound for Toulon! But there could be several explanations - they could be British frigates investigating a strange sail out of sight from the Calypso. But even as he watched, both ships began to alter course, coming round to larboard so that they would meet the Calypso. "Pass the word for Orsini," Ramage told Kenton, "and then send him aloft with a bring-'em-near: I'm beginning to doubt if those two are frigates."

Ships of the line usually meant problems: either one of them carried an admiral who wanted to give fresh orders, or the senior of the two captains had some task to be carried out. Well, Ramage thought grimly, he was sailing under Admiralty orders, which should make him proof against being humbugged about by any passing senior officers.

He watched Orsini arrive on the quarterdeck, collect a telescope and jump up into the ratlines in a smooth scramble aloft. If Gianna could see her nephew now, he mused. That was a big "if", since it was by no means certain that she was still alive.

How the years passed. In many ways it seemed no time ago that he had rescued the young and vulnerable Marchesa di Volterra from the beaches of Tuscany, snatching her (with the help of the seaman Jackson) from under the feet of Napoleon's cavalry. It seemed no time at all that he had fallen in love with her (thought he had fallen in love with her, he corrected himself) and back in England the refugee Marchesa had gone to live with his parents. And then later her nephew had escaped from Volterra, a lively lad who had wanted to join the Navy and, at Gianna's request, Paolo Orsini had come to the Calypso as a midshipman and quickly learned seamanship and become a popular young officer.

And then . . '. and then had come the peace following the Treaty of Amiens, and Gianna had decided that she must return to her kingdom of Volterra. His father and he had argued with her, warning her that she would be at risk from Napoleon's assassins, and that the peace would not last. But she would not listen and she had left London for Paris, on her way to Italy. They had heard nothing more of her, and in the meantime Ramage had met and married Sarah, now his wife. Gianna was an ever-fading memory, jogged into existence again whenever he looked at Paolo and remembered. As he had just done. But memories of Gianna were fading, of that there was no doubt; he had difficulty in recalling the details of her face; all that remained was a picture of her personality: lively, at times imperious, warm yet hot-tempered, but for all that very much the ruler of the kingdom of Volterra which, small on the map, yet loomed large in the life of the young girl who - until Napoleon's Army of Italy drove her out - was its sole ruler.

He put the telescope back to his eye. What a long string of memories had been called up by watching Paolo climbing the rigging. How different was Sarah, the wife he had left in England.

It was strange how the Calypso's ship's company knew both women so well. Gianna because many of them had helped rescue her and been on board the ship that took her back to England, and Sarah for a similar reason, only this time the rescue had been from an island off the coast of Brazil.

Yes, those two sail had hauled their wind to meet him, and he was sure they were not frigates: more like ships of the line. A couple of ships making their way from Naples to Gibraltar - or through the Gut on their way to England - would be nothing out of the ordinary; in fact it would be a commonplace, a one-line entry in his journal, merely noting the date, time and names of the ships.

Orsini hailed from the masthead and Kenton snatched up the speaking trumpet to reply. The two sail, Paolo reported, were ships of the line and they had come round on to opposing courses. Their hulls were still below the horizon so it was impossible to identify them.

"Tell him to keep a sharp lookout," Ramage said without thinking.

Paolo of all people would keep a sharp lookout. His hatred of the French would make sure of that. Ever since the end of the brief peace following the Treaty of Amiens, when his aunt had vanished and it seemed only logical to suppose that she had either been murdered by Napoleon's men or imprisoned, he had added bitterness to his hatred. No Frenchman, Ramage suspected, should ever ask Paolo for quarter.

Down at one of the forward guns on the starboard side a group of seamen gossiped, having completed the morning's exercises and expecting any minute to get the order to run the gun in and secure it. They had heard the lookout's hail and Midshipman Orsini's report; they knew that now they would have to wait until the two ships were close enough to answer the challenge.

"We seem to spend 'arf our life waitin'," growled Stafford, a Cockney seaman. "Ships of the line - must be ours: stands to reason, after Trafalgar."

"It'll take more than Trafalgar to change the rules," said Jackson. "We didn't sink every French ship of the line, you know."

"The way Staff tells the story, we did!" said Rossi, the Italian from Genoa. "Not one escaped!"

"We didn't do too badly," Stafford said complacently. "A few frigates got away, but they'll be too scared to come out for months."

He spoke without considering that the other four of the gun's crew were French, royalists who had signed on in the Royal Navy after helping Ramage and his wife Sarah escape from France when war had broken out again.

"Don't underestimate Napoleon," said one of the men.

"Boney wasn't at Trafalgar, Louis," Stafford said contemptuously. "Pity 'e wasn't; we'd have taken him prisoner and led 'im up Ludgate 'ill with a chain round 'is neck and 'anded 'im over to the Lord Mayor."

"He's cunning," Louis persisted. "See how he has gone off to attack Russia ..."

"Well, he don't need a navy to attack them, I must say," Stafford admitted.

"And it means he has time to rebuild his navy," Louis insisted.

"He ain't got much time," Stafford said emphatically. "Yer can't build a ship of the line in six months, 'specially if you ain't got no wood to speak of, and we know 'e ain't."

"He's got enough wood to repair those ships we knocked about," Jackson said. "Patch 'em up and send 'em to sea to interfere with our shipping - that would soon have us hopping about."

"I don't see why," Stafford said stubbornly.

"Use your head," Jackson said sharply. "A ship of the line at sea on the loose means at least one of our snips of the line finding her. And it means a dozen or more looking for her. Don't think it'd be a question of sending out a frigate or two ..."

"All right, all right, I get your point," Stafford conceded. "But I presume their Lordships will be keepin' a blockade on places like Brest, Lorient, Cadiz and Toulon."

"And Ferrol, and Cartagena . . . You forget the Dons have more ports than the French - as many, anyway. And to prevent one ship slipping out on a dark night it has to be a tight blockade."

"Frigates," Louis said unexpectedly. "Supposing the French turned loose all their frigates to raid convoys. Don't forget we rarely have more than a couple of frigates escorting the big West Indian convoys-just imagine three French frigates attacking ..."

"The way you all tell it, we won Trafalgar and lost the war," Stafford grumbled.

"No, nothing like that," Jackson said placatingly. "We're only saying don't expect we won't see another French sail at sea."

"You'll be saying next that these two up ahead are French and steering down to sink us," Stafford retorted.

"No, they're probably Russian," Louis said drily. "With snow on their decks!"

"Wild men, these Russians," Stafford said. "I remember seeing a Russian ship in Malta some years ago. Their seamanship was 'orrible. Good job they 'ad strong ships, the way they came alongside the jetty. 'Bang, crash, sling a rope' - that's 'ow they did it."

Ramage put the telescope to his eye again and then said to Southwick: "I don't like the cut of their sails. Their hulls will be coming up over the horizon any moment now, and we'll hear from Orsini, but in the meantime those sails have a strange cut."

"Could be a couple of Algerines," Southwick commented. "They've got a few big ships."

Ramage shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "They could be, but why would there be two of them?"

Southwick shrugged his shoulders. "No telling with Algerines."

Several more minutes passed before Orsini hailed, and there was no mistaking the excitement in his voice. "Deck there! I can make out their hulls now. They look French!"

Ramage glanced across at Southwick. "Could be like us -captured and put into service."

"Aye," Southwick said. "Maybe even taken at Trafalgar. Could have been bought in at Gibraltar and commissioned there."

Ramage nodded again. "The battle was four months ago, so there's been enough time."

And that, he thought to himself, settles that: it was an uncomfortable thought that two French line of battle ships could be bearing down on them. There could be no escape; the Calypso would be pounded into firewood unless she could get far enough away to escape in the dark of night.

Ramage knew that now he had two options: first, to turn away this minute, and make a bolt for it. This could get him the reputation of the captain who fled at the sight of two of his own ships. Or, second, carry on and meet them, making or answering the challenge, assuming they were the King's ships, captured from the French.

It was not the first time he had had to make the choice, and looking at it another way, since the Calypso had been captured from the French and bought into the Royal Navy, she too could be mistaken for French by any other ships and in fact more than once he had passed her off to fool the French.

"The man who ran away" - no, he did not want that reputation, and with two ships involved it would be one to spread quickly. Not that anyone would really blame him: a frigate being engaged by two ships of the line would be as brief an episode as a kitten being savaged by two bulldogs.

Five minutes later, when Ramage put the telescope to his eye again, there was no mistaking the correctness of Orsini's hail: the two ships were French; that much was clear from the sweep of their sheers and the cut of their sails. But there was no reason to suppose that since they Were French built they were not King's ships. The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that they had been taken at Trafalgar.

Ramage noted that both ships were staying close together: they were sailing within a couple of ship's lengths of each other. If they were French and planning mischief, they would spread out to cut off the Calypso's escape. But in fact they were behaving just like two British ships of the line after sighting a friendly frigate . . .

"Beat to quarters, Mr Kenton. Have the challenge and our pendant numbers bent on, and the reply, in case they challenge first."

The thudding of the drum as a Marine drummer hammered away with his drumsticks suddenly brought the Calypso's decks to life, as though an anthill had been disturbed with a stick.

The gunner and his mate hurried below to the magazine, unrolling felt curtains as they went, to prevent any flash from the guns penetrating to the powder stowed in scores of cartridges and in casks in the powder room.

Men rigged the washdeck pumps and began sluicing water across the decks as others scattered sand: water would soak any spilled gunpowder and the sand would prevent feet slipping. The second captains of all the guns hurried down to the magazine to collect the locks from the gunner which would provide the spark to fire the guns. They collected priming wires and lanyards for the locks as well as horns of priming powder and boxes of quills, which were already filled with priming powder.

Ship's boys, known as powder monkeys, waited in the long corridor leading to the magazine, ready with their cylindrical wooden boxes to receive the cartridges for the guns.

The guns themselves, thanks to the exercises just completed, were all ready for loading: each had its crew round it, with the officers at their divisions, with the exception that the first lieutenant, Aitken, who would normally be on the quarterdeck at general quarters, was taking Kenton's place while he was on watch.

All the implements for loading the guns were ready; the rammer on its long handle was ready to ram home first the cartridge, then a wad, and then a roundshot. The sponge which, soaked with water, would be used to sponge out the burning residue in the bore of the gun so that it would not prematurely ignite the cartridge or any loose powder, was lying ready along with the wormer, which looked like a giant corkscrew on a long handle and was used to ream out any remaining piece of burning cartridge left behind after the gun had been fired.

Small tubs beside each gun were filled with water for the sponges (and for the men to dip their heads in to cool themselves off in action) and between each gun another, smaller tub was partly filled with water and short lengths of slowmatch - in effect fuses - were fitted into notches cut into the rim. The slowmatches were fitted so that the burning ends hung over the water - a further precaution against stray grains of powder being ignited.

As soon as he received the word from the quarterdeck, Lieutenant George Hill, the third lieutenant and commanding the division of guns that included Jackson's, gave the order to load.

By now Stafford had returned from the magazine with the lock and had bolted it on to the gun, threading the lanyard through the trigger and coiling it neatly on the breech. He now stood with the horn of priming powder round his neck like a hunting horn with the pricker ready in his left hand.

Jackson, as gun captain, stood to the rear while Rossi, Louis and the other two Frenchmen were ready to take the cartridge from the powder monkey waiting behind Jackson and ram it home, followed by a roundshot after the wad, a thick circular piece of felt. Wads were now lying in piles beside each gun in what were called cheeses.

At the order to load and as soon as powder and shot had been rammed home Jackson took the lanyard, which was three feet longer than the distance the gun recoiled, and stood behind the gun, ready to give aiming orders. Squatting with his left leg flung out sideways so he could sight along the barrel, he would when the order to fire was shouted, give a sharp pull on the lanyard after Stafford had cocked the lock and jumped clear of the recoil.

Every movement had been practised so many times that the men could carry out their tasks blindfolded. And after a few rounds had been fired and the deck filled with smoke from the guns, they were as good as blindfolded, as well as being stunned and deafened by the detonation of all the guns, so that most of what they did was instinctive.

Up on the quarterdeck Ramage listened as first one division of guns and then another reported itself ready. Aitken had come up to the quarterdeck to take over the watch from Kenton, who had gone below to his own division.

Aitken had looked at the approaching ships and in his broad Scottish accent agreed that they were French built and, without any prompting from Ramage, reckoned they were former prizes taken at Trafalgar and now bought into the King's service.

"If they sail anything like this one," he commented, "they'll be useful additions to the Fleet."

How many hundreds of times have we stood here like this, Ramage thought, all the guns loaded, ready to greet a friend or attack an enemy, quizzing the other ships - usually just a single ship - with a telescope? Usually, he had to admit, someone recognized the other ship: usually there was a man who had served in her, or recognized her from a previous voyage. Most ships had some peculiarity of build or rig, like a person's walk.

Ramage looked over the bow at the approaching ships, noting yet again that, with the wind astern of them, it was impossible to see their colours and that it would be equally difficult to read their reply, except that by the time they had hoisted it they would be several hundred yards closer.

"Hoist the challenge," he told Aitken.

"I thought they'd have beaten us to it, sir," the Scot said, after passing the order.

Both ships were now a mile away, and Aitken's remark reminded Ramage that he had expected to be challenged: it was a habit rather than a tradition, that the larger ship challenged the smaller.

He heard the slatting as the flag hoist was hauled up on its halyard, and he repeated to himself the answer, picturing the colours on the flags. With the wind in this direction, the best chance of identifying them would be as they were hoisted, when they would be flickering in random eddies of wind blowing off the sails.

The two ships sailed on, dipping and rising in the following sea, a flurry of foam at their stems. Their masts were almost in line and Ramage watched, along with Aitken and Southwick, for hoists of flags to snake up on their halyards.

The Calypso's challenge had been hoisted for a couple of minutes before Ramage felt a cold hand clutching at his stomach. He tried to will one or other of the two ships to hoist the reply, but there was nothing.

"They're French," he finally said to no one in particular, his voice hollow. One tiny frigate against two ships of the line which had the weather gauge. Two 74s against a 32-gun frigate. Before the Calypso could wear round and begin to escape one or both of the ships would bear up to loose a broadside into her: 32-pounder shot would crash through her hull . . .

What to do? He shook off the momentary paralysis brought on by the lack of reply to the challenge and found he was angry: angry with himself for taking it for granted that the two ships were British, and angry with them for being French. He wanted to smash them - just as they were about to smash the Calypso. But how?

There was only one way: he would ram one of them: crash the Calypso right across her bow, tearing away the jibboom and bowsprit and, with luck, tearing away enough of her rigging to bring down the foremast, disabling her.

Which ship? The Calypso was on the starboard tack, so it would save time to steer for the ship to leeward, the one on the larboard side. But whatever he did, there was no time to waste: the Calypso and the ships were approaching each other at a combined speed of more than fourteen knots, the Frenchmen wallowing along in a following sea, the Calypso butting herself to windward.

"We'll ram the larboard one," he snapped at Aitken and Southwick. "Warn the starboard side batteries to open fire if their guns bear."

Southwick picked up the speaking trumpet and bellowed forward. From aloft Ramage was aware of a plaintive hail from Orsini asking permission to come down. Aitken was shouting to seamen to man the sheets and braces.

Ramage did a quick sum in his head, calculating the forward movement of the French ship and the Calypso, working out the point at which they would collide.

He saw at once that on the present course the frigate would pass twenty or thirty yards ahead of the Frenchman unless he luffed up at the last moment, and that would mean that the Frenchman would merely collide with the Calypso, whereas it was vital that the Calypso was moving fast when she aimed herself at the enemy, so that her bow hit the Frenchman's bow at the exact spot to create the most damage.

"A point to starboard, Mr Aitken: haul in those sheets as though your life depended on it."

He had an absurd urge to laugh at the order: Aitken, like the rest of them, was done for whatever happened.

The Calypso turned a few degrees, heading for a point many yards ahead of the Frenchman so that they would collide in - about three minutes.

He heard a sound like ripping calico and instinctively looked aloft: the other Frenchman was opening fire with her bowchase guns, and the first shot had gone overhead, apparently without damaging masts, rigging or sails. A difficult feat at this range, Ramage thought.

In a second he saw exactly what would happen: the French ship would come ploughing on and the Calypso, slicing across her course, would just clip her bow, taking away, as he planned, jibboom and bowsprit and perhaps the foremast. If she was lucky, the Calypso would emerge beyond the Frenchman with her own masts still standing, but more likely - there were only a few feet in it - the Frenchman would in fact ram the Calypso and, while probably not rolling her over, smash a great hole in her starboard side and pin her while the boarders swarmed on board.

What was the second ship going to do? If she bore away for a couple of minutes she could bring her entire starboard broadside to bear. The only thing was she had no idea what the Calypso intended doing.

Should he pass the word to stand by to repel boarders? No, it meant taking men from the guns, and they would probably do more good there: if they could keep firing the starboard side guns while the two ships were locked together they might do some damage.

He looked over the starboard bow at the enemy. She was painted black with red and green trim; the paintwork was faded and the black forward was now greyish with salt drying out from the spray. Sails patched - more patches than original cloth, in fact. And now he just caught sight of the Tricolour flapping aft. All her guns run out; stubby black fingers protruding from her hull.

And she seemed to be getting bigger every moment: her great jibboom and bowsprit stuck out from the bow like a fisherman's rod, the lower end a complex web of stays, the most vulnerable part of the ship. The yards were massive, the sails hanging from them like bulging curtains. And men: he could see men now standing on the fo'c'sle, staring at the approaching frigate.

The French officers on the quarterdeck would not be able to see the frigate's hull now: it would be hidden beyond the bow. They would see only the masts and yards. What were their thoughts? That the English frigate captain had at last panicked, and was trying - very clumsily - to turn away to attempt to make a completely futile run for it?

Ramage glanced at Southwick. The old master's face was impassive: he was just leaning against the quarterdeck rail looking at the Frenchman without any visible emotion. In two minutes the old man could be dead but he gave no sign of knowing it. Ramage could not think how many times Southwick had been in action but one thing was certain: death was no stranger to him: he had stared it in the face scores of times.

Nor did Aitken betray any emotion: the Scotsman had also gone into action many times with Ramage. At no time, though, with less chance of surviving. As he caught sight of Orsini swinging down from the shrouds and dropping on to the deck, Ramage thought fleetingly that it mattered not at all whether or not Gianna was alive: Paolo, too, was unlikely to survive the next few minutes to see her again. And, he reflected bitterly, it was all his fault: he had approached these two ships of the line as though they were fishing boats: he had not considered for a moment that they might be French. Oh yes, he had noted that they were French built, but he had let the great victory at Trafalgar drive out any thought that they might be flying Tricolours. He had, quite simply, been careless and overconfident, and now he was going to pay for it with his own life and the lives of all the men in the Calypso who had for years trusted him. Well, it was the first time he had let them down -and, he reflected, it would be the last.

He continued the line" of the Calypso's course to where it intercepted the Frenchman. A couple of hundred yards. Even now the Frenchman obviously had no idea what he intended. Not two hundred yards - more likely a hundred and fifty and the distance shortening rapidly.

"Steer fine, blast you," Aitken said conversationally to the men at the wheel, and then commenting calmly to Ramage: "Just about right, don't you think, sir?"

"Yes, we should catch his jibboom in our foreshrouds. Her stem should ram us amidships."

Southwick gave one of his famous sniffs, only this time it was an approving sniff: clearly the old man agreed with both Aitken and Ramage.

At his gun on the starboard side, Jackson finally walked to the gunport and joined Stafford looking through it.

The Cockney was staring at the approaching French ship and he muttered to the American seaman: "What d'you reckon the Old Man is trying to do?"

"Ram the bastard," Jackson said succinctly. "It's the only thing left. No good firing our pop guns at her."

"Ram?" Stafford repeated, awe in his voice. "We'll just bounce off her!"

"Not if we clip off her jibboom and bowsprit. Probably bring down her foremast as well."

"Then she'll ram us and capsize us!"

"Maybe," Jackson said. "That's the price you pay for thinking every ship at sea is one of ours."

"Bit o' an 'igh price!"

Jackson shrugged his shoulders. "You've got to pay it when you mistake a Frenchman for one of ours."

"Our number's up, ain't it, Jacko?" Stafford commented, his voice flat and unemotional.

"I reckon so," Jackson said, turning back to the gun.

Rossi had overheard the conversation. "Is not Mr Ramage's fault," he said defensively. "Is hard to see the colours of a ship coming directly like that."

"Quite right, Rosey," Jackson said calmly. "Just 'cos we beat 'em at Trafalgar, we thought we'd driven them from the sea. Where these two came from I don't know. Egypt, I suppose."

"We ram, you think?"

"Her jibboom and bowsprit are where she's vulnerable," Jackson said, "and it looks as though that's where Mr Ramage is heading. Our only chance of disabling her."

"What about the other ship?" Louis asked.

"She'll have to tow this one all the way to Toulon, unless they can manage a jury rig."

Louis shook his head regretfully. "Pity we can't disable both of them."

"No miracles in the Mediterranean," Jackson said. "You chaps haven't been saying your prayers." He walked quickly to the gunport again and peered forward. "You have about a minute to say them now," he said, "then there's going to be an almighty bang."

AUTHORS NOTE | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER TWO