Ramage narrowed his eyes in concentration. Yes, the Calypso would hit the French ship exactly where - no, damnation, she would pass too far ahead. He blinked and then blinked again. Much too far ahead. What on earth was happening? The men at the wheel had not moved it a spoke and a quick glance at the luffs of the sails showed the wind had not changed. But nevertheless the Calypso was now going to pass too far ahead of the Frenchman.
Suddenly he realized that the gap between the French ship's masts was widening. Damn, damn, she was altering course: she was turning to larboard: her captain must have guessed what Ramage intended doing, and he was turning violently to avoid a collision. And there was no way Ramage could get the Calypso two - no, three - points to windward. Nor was there time to tack across the Frenchman's bow. Instead he would receive her full starboard broadside in a matter of moments. Just then the first of the Calypso's guns fired as the Frenchman began to swing past the starboard side.
But the Frenchman did not fire back. Why? Ramage realized that she would have been manning her larboard side guns: the sudden swing round was made before guns' crews could run across the ship to the other side.
He turned to keep her in view and out of the corner of his eye he saw the second ship, much closer than he expected. She was staying on the same course as before but the first ship was heading straight for her.
Had the first ship's captain not realized the danger? They were trimming her yards as if she was the only ship at sea, and as she came round on to a broad reach, all her sails bulging under the weight of the wind, she increased speed: this was her fastest point of sailing.
She was now on almost an opposite course to the Calypso and beading straight for her consort. Ramage gave a gasp: a collision was inevitable, and he gripped the capping on the rail at the forward end of the quarterdeck.
As he watched, the first ship's sails began to flutter as men let fly the sheets and braces in what was obviously a desperate last-minute attempt to get the way off the ship but by now, as the sound of the slatting canvas carried across to the frigate, the two ships were only twenty yards apart.
Already, Ramage could see that the jibboom and bowsprit that be had been aiming for was now pointing at the mainshrouds of the second ship and in a few moments would catch them as though the ship was a lancer lunging at a passing bush.
Southwick's exclamation of "Ye gods!" was overlaid with Aitken's awe-struck "Will ye no look at that!"
Then the ship crashed into her consort: jibboom and bowsprit mashed through the mainshrouds and brought the mainmast toppling down, the topmast and topgallant tumbling as though hinged. The foremast of the first ship tumbled forward as though Ac effort of staying upright was too much for it and crashed down on to the deck of the second ship.
The impact brought the two ships alongside each other and their remaining yards locked. For a moment or two the first ship's mainmast swayed and then, with no stays supporting it forward and with her consort's yards tugging on the larboard side, it toppled slowly and gracefully, leaving the ship, now bereft of two masts, looking strangely naked.
Ramage, hardly able to believe what he had seen, fought down an urge to giggle; expecting any moment to be killed and then seeing the anticipated killer suddenly reduced to helplessness was a new experience which left him weak with relief.
"I'll trouble you to bear away a point, Mr Aitken," he said in a voice which sounded oddly strangled.
"Aye aye, sir," Aitken said, his Scots accent thicker than Ramage had ever heard before. He watched the first lieutenant bring the speaking trumpet to his lips after snapping an order to the men at the wheel.
At that moment Southwick turned to Ramage, gave a prodigious sniff and commented: "They're a lubberly lot, these Frogs."
"And we should be suitably thankful," Ramage said.
"Look!" Orsini said excitedly, "there goes the other ship's foremast!"
They all watched as the mast fell forward, moving very slowly at first, and then crashing in a welter of wood splinters and dust, spreading the sails like a shroud over the fo'c'sle.
"Well, that evens 'em up; two masts each," Southwick grunted.
"We'll tack across their sterns, Mr Aitken: we need to get their names," Ramage said, thinking of the report he had to write. Describing the way that two French ships of the line had been dismasted and left wallowing helplessly alongside each other was going to be difficult enough, and it was straining credulity not to have their names.
The Calypso's sails slatted and banged as she tacked; sheets and braces were hauled home and she settled down on her new course which would take her diagonally across the sterns of the two crippled ships.
Ramage looked round the horizon. It was empty. What he needed now was a British ship of the line to heave in sight. Preferably two. Then they could take possession of the French ships and tow them into port, with the Calypso hovering round like a distracted moth . . . But the horizon was empty; the two ships were going to have to be left.
"Pity we can't take possession," Southwick growled.
"They might be dismasted but they still have their broadsides," Ramage said shortly. "One broadside could leave us like them!"
"True enough," Southwick agreed. "It's just that having two ships of the line lying there like that . . ."
'Ramage nodded but said: "I thought it would have been us."
He picked up his telescope as the two transoms came into sight. Slowly he spelled out the first name and Orsini wrote Artois on the slate. Then he saw the second name and spelled it out, L'Aigle. Neither ship - as far as he could remember - had been at Trafalgar. Which meant that almost certainly they were on their way back to Toulon after a visit to Egypt. Ramage shrugged his shoulders: it mattered little where they were coming from or going to: both had a lot of work to do before they could do anything but drift with wind and current.
Stafford, standing to one side of the breech of the gun and with a better view through the gunport, had seen the collision and had given an excited commentary. Until he had time to dash to the ship's side and look for himself, Jackson had not believed the Cockney, thinking he was indulging in some complicated joke.
What he saw left him speechless. When he found his tongue again he said: "And not a broadside fired! What do we do now -offer them a tow?"
"Yus," exclaimed Stafford. "Tow 'em to Toulon and get a reward from Boney!"
"Are we just going to leave them like that?" asked Louis, after looking through the port.
"I don't reckon we've much choice," Jackson said. "They may have lost their masts, but their batteries are still in place. Every gun loaded, too."
"I know how you feel, Louis," Rossi said sympathetically. "I'd like to go across and set fire to them."
Stafford laughed quietly to himself. "What a story we've got to tell. Two line of battle ships an' we didn't fire a single broadside."
"Bluff, that's what it was," Jackson said. "And carelessness on the part of the French captain. He tried to sidestep us when he saw we were after his bowsprit - and stepped right into his mate!"
"Very careless," Stafford said. "Look what a mess it's got him into."
"Got them both into," Louis said. "Neither would do as dancing masters!"
Two hours later, with the Calypso back on her original course, the two disabled ships were just tiny blobs far astern, their hulls slowly dipping below the horizon. In the frigate the men had stood down from general quarters; the guns had been unloaded, run in and secured. The deck had been washed down and the sand brushed out of the scuppers. The match tubs had been emptied and the slowmatches extinguished, rolled up in coils like light line and returned to the magazine along with all the flintlocks, prickers and cartridges.
Now the men were waiting to be piped to dinner; they were still gossiping excitedly among themselves about the collision and speculating on their fate if the French captain of the ship of the line had not lost his nerve at the last moment to avoid the Calypso. On the quarterdeck, Ramage was thinking of the report he had to write about the episode. It was a bizarre affair, and it was going to sound even more bizarre when reduced to the bare wording of a stylized letter to the Admiralty, beginning with the usual: "Sir, be pleased to inform their Lordships ..."
The report had to go to the Admiralty because he was sailing under Admiralty orders; otherwise it would be to a commander-in-chief, and he would probably be seeing the admiral personally at the time he handed in the letter containing the report.
The watch changed and the third lieutenant, George Hill, took over the deck from Kenton. Hill was an unusual man: debonair, tall and thin, he was bilingual, thanks to a French mother who had married his father, a banker, and then found herself almost completely unable to learn English.
He had a dry sense of humour which Ramage found amusing; he was a very competent officer, and the men liked him. Almost more important, he could make Southwick laugh.
"Have you ever heard of a collision like that one, sir?" he asked Ramage.
"No, never. But they were unusual circumstances."
"Perhaps we were lucky in coming across a Frenchman so sensitive about his jibboom and bowsprit."
Ramage laughed and then said: "If I'd been him I'd have been just as sensitive. If you're a Frenchman this is no place to lose a foremast."
"You'd already worked that out, sir?"
Ramage shook his head. "No," he said frankly, "at the time it seemed the only way of escaping from at least one of the Frenchmen. Not escaping really, of course, since we'd have been pinned by him, maybe even holed. But that would have been better than being trapped between them and pounded to pieces: we'd have lost most of the ship's company."
"Well, we've learned a new trick!"
Ramage held up a cautionary finger. "It's not one we're likely to be able to use again."
Hill grinned and said: "No, sir, true enough; I'm thankful we were able to use it once!"
Both men glanced aloft as the lookout at the foremasthead hailed.
"Land ho! One point on the starboard bow!"