Both Ramage and Hill picked up telescopes. Ramage could just make out a faint blur, a blue-grey hump with a dark cloud just above it. "It's probably the island of Capraia," he said shortly.
Was it a coincidence that the two French ships of the line had passed so close to the island? It was a barren sort of place, admittedly. It might be a good idea to pass close and have a good look: he would look a fool if the French had put a couple of battalions on shore there, though he could not think of a good reason why they should.
"We'll harden sheets so that we can lay the island, Mr Hill."
The third lieutenant gave an order to the men at the wheel and then picked up the speaking trumpet. The men on watch hauled on sheets and braces and the ship steered a couple of points to starboard, heading for an invisible place to windward of the island.
Capraia. From memory, there was just a small fishing port once protected by an old fortress called San Giorgio. And six years ago there was the tragedy of the Queen Charlotte. "Capraia, sir? Why does the name stick in my memory?" Hill asked.
"Pirates and the Queen Charlotte, I expect."
"Ah yes, she blew up, didn't she?"
Ramage nodded. "It's a barren sort of place but pirates love it. As far as I remember, the people living there appealed to Lord Nelson - who was in Leghorn at the time - to send them a ship to get rid of the pirates. His Lordship sent the Queen Charlotte, but while she was on passage and passing Gorgona at the north end of this group of islands she caught fire and blew up, killing more than six hundred men."
"So Capraia never did get rid of her pirates?"
Ramage shrugged his shoulders. "Probably not. We might find some there ..."
"Where do they come from, sir?"
"Most of them from the Barbary coast, I think. The local people just call them Saraceni. At one time nearly all pirates in the Mediterranean were Saracens, but now I suspect that quite a few of them are Algerines."
"There must be a good harbour there."
"No, it's just a small fishing harbour. The pirates only come there during the summer. That's why we aren't very likely to find any now - too early in the year: they don't want to get caught in a storm with no port to leeward."
By now Hill, who did not know the Mediterranean at all well, was intrigued at the idea of meeting pirates, and looked at the distant island once again with his telescope.
"What do these pirates do, sir?"
"Mostly raid towns and villages. Seize a few fishing boats, but mainly they're interested in targets on shore. They are not seamen; just Arab bandits with boats to get to the various islands. They even raid places on the mainland of Italy, looting, kidnapping men for their galleys and women for the brothels."
"I don't think I want to live around here," Hill said.
Half an hour later the lookout reported a small sail ahead, following up with a hail saying it was a fishing boat which had just altered course to cross ahead of the Calypso. Ramage pinched his nose. Altering course to cross ahead? That was unusual: normally, local fishing boats kept away from ships of war; they could be visited by pressgangs on the lookout for ablebodied men. It was not unknown for a party from a frigate to confiscate their entire catch.
"Send Jackson aloft with a glass," Ramage told Hill.
Jackson, rated one of the sharpest-eyed men in the ship, was soon shouting down to the deck that the fishermen were waving cloths, trying to attract the Calypso's attention.
What had the fishermen got to say? Surely they were not trying to sell their catch. Ramage shrugged: there was only one way of finding out.
"We'll heave to just to leeward of them," he told Hill. "Pass the word to Mr Rennick to have a dozen marines standing by at the entryport."
Rennick, the red-faced Marine lieutenant, would be only too glad of the opportunity to parade some of his men: he had about the most monotonous job in the ship. No, perhaps the surgeon did, since it was rare for any of the frigate's men to report sick.
At that moment Southwick came up on to the quarterdeck.
"Trouble, sir? I heard the lookout hailing."
Ramage shook his head. "No, just a fisherman up ahead who is trying to attract our attention."
"Probably wants to sell us some fish," Southwick said gloomily.
Ramage nodded. "That's what I thought. Still, some fresh fish would be welcome: our men don't seem to be having any luck with the lines we're towing astern!"
Southwick rubbed his hands together. "Yes, a nice tuna steak would not come amiss."
Ramage could see the fishing boat quite clearly now through the glass. It was quite large; he could make out eight or nine men on her deck, several of them waving cloths, probably their shirts.
Their little ship was flying no colours, but that was not surprising. They were almost certainly from Capraia, the island ahead.
Hill gave an order to the quartermaster, who passed it to the men at the wheel. The Calypso bore away a few degrees to larboard, so that the fishing boat was now ahead and under half a mile away.
She had once been painted red and blue, but now her sides were saltcaked and the nail sickness, the streaks of rust from the nails used in her planking, looking like dark tear stains. Her sails were so patched that there were more patches than original cloths, and as she pitched Ramage could see baskets on her foredeck, waiting for fish. Or maybe they held the catch they wanted to sell.
Ten minutes later the Calypso, her foretopsail backed, was lying stopped to leeward of the fishing boat and Ramage, the speaking trumpet reversed so that the mouthpiece was against his ear, was trying to understand what the fishermen, who seemed excited, were trying to shout to him.
Finally he put down the speaking trumpet. "It's no good, I can't make out a word," he told Hill. "Hoist out a boat and bring the captain over."
Southwick sniffed disapprovingly. "We're going to a lot of trouble for a pack of fishermen," he muttered. "Why not let 'em use the boat they're towing astern?"
"It'll be quicker using one of our own boats. And," Ramage said, "they're not trying to sell fish."
"You heard that much, then?"
"No, but all their baskets are empty - I can see them from here. So they're not selling fish. They may be reporting seeing some ships. Perhaps they saw the two French ships of the line and want to tell us about them!"
It took several minutes to hoist out a boat and then Jackson clambered down into it with a crew. The boat was rowed over to the fishing boat which, sails now lowered, rolled heavily.
The fishing boat's captain, when he came on board, was a tall man so thin his face was gaunt. He had several blackened teeth and very large hands on the end of extraordinarily long arms.
He saluted Ramage awkwardly and started off a long explanation in Italian which had a heavy local accent.
Ramage listened carefully, nodding from time to time, but otherwise standing with his head inclined forward while the Italian gesticulated frequently, holding up a finger to emphasize a particular point.
Finally the Italian finished his story, with Southwick, Aitken -who had come on deck as the Calypso hove-to - and Hill watching him impatiently, not having understood a word. They saw Ramage hold out a hand and the Italian shake it vigorously.
As the Italian went to the entryport to climb back down into the boat, Southwick looked at Ramage questioningly. Ramage looked puzzled and shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts. "It seems there are a lot of Frenchmen around these parts. He was reporting the two ships of the line but what really worries him is that there's a French frigate at anchor just outside the harbour at Capraia."
"Have they landed any troops?" Aitken asked.
"No, they marched some seamen through the streets - probably just to impress the local people - but that was all."
"And the frigate, she's still there, sir?"
"She was still there when that fellow sailed last night."
"So they're not interfering with the fishermen?"
"No, the fishermen are free to come and go. He couldn't think of any reason why the Frenchman is there."
"Just waiting for us to come and do him in," Southwick growled. "Two ships of the line and a frigate will make a good score."
Ramage nodded and rubbed a scar on his forehead. It was a gesture Southwick recognized at once, and knew there was no need for any more talk.
As soon as Jackson returned with the boat it was hoisted in. They watched the fisherman hoisting its lateen sail and draw clear, and then Ramage said: 'Very well, Mr Hill: let's get under way again. Steer direct for the island - you can just about lay it with this wind.''
Hill bellowed a string of orders through the speaking trumpet and the watch on deck hauled on the brace which swung round the foretopmast yard while other men hauled on the sheet, so that the sail filled and then curved into shape as wind filled it. From being dead in the water, stopped by the backed foretopsail's weight pressing against the thrust of the other sails, the Calypso slowly got way on: the water began chuckling under her stem, the men at the wheel had to brace themselves against the rudder's kick, and the ship came alive.
The frigate began to pitch as she beat up towards the island and Southwick spread a chart across the top of the binnacle and began to comment on what he saw.
"It's a mountainous island, steep-to on this western side and sloping down on the eastern side. A chain of mountains runs roughly north and south the length of the island, with a very high peak at the north end and at the south end. Nothing on the west side of the island except cliffs and rocks; the only place is Porto Vecchio, which is simply a wide bight, with the small harbour of Capraia in the south-west corner. A couple of old forts . . . that's all there is. I can't see anything to interest the Frenchman."
Ramage thought for a moment. Why assume the French frigate had called at the island for any reason concerning the island? Clearly Capraia had nothing to offer except shelter - and olives, fish and goat meat if you were hungry.
"Perhaps the Frenchman is doing some repairs," Ramage said. "Repairs that need a quiet anchorage for a few hours . . ."
Southwick slapped his knee and said enthusiastically: "That's it! Sprung his bowsprit, most likely. Or shifting yards. Probably sailing in company with those two 74s, and then bore up for the lee of Capraia when something went wrong. Not that Capraia gives I
much of a lee with this wind, but it looks as though it'll haul round to the west, and the French captain may think the same."
The old master seemed relieved. "It was worrying me," he admitted. "I couldn't for the life of me see why a French frigate would call there. But to do some repairs - yes, that's a good enough reason."
Through his telescope Ramage could make out the largest peaks on the island: there were four, one at the northern end of the island and another at the southern, as if to balance it, with two in between. It was so mountainous - on the western side anyway -that the inhabitants must live a hard life. Southwick had said that it sloped down on the eastern side, but it would give little land suitable for crops since the whole island could not be five miles long.
He considered a nagging thought. Those two French 74s. Should he have made more of an effort to destroy them? He took off his hat, wiped the inside of the band and jammed it back on his head, perplexed. The only thing he could have done was sail back and forth across their sterns, raking them. They would have brought up a couple of sternchase guns each, so four would have been firing at him as the Calypso raked them with sixteen 12-pounders. It would have done as much good as a mouse gnawing at a thick oak door. He knew that; but would their Lordships take the same view, or the admiral at Naples when he reported to him?
He shrugged his shoulders: it was all over now; there was no question of going back. Now he had to concentrate his attention on this frigate anchored off Capraia. The frigate presented the same problem - how to achieve surprise. He had done it against the two 74s by unexpectedly steering straight for the Artois's bow, obviously intending to carry away her jibboom and bowsprit, and as a result the captain of the Artois had panicked and collided with the other 74. Now to surprise the frigate. At least the Frenchman could not see him coming: even at this moment he would be lying at anchor off the little harbour, unaware that the Calypso was approaching from the other side of the island - unless he had posted lookouts at the top of one of the mountains, which would be very unlikely.
He looked at his watch and then told Hill: "Send the men to dinner; we may not get another opportunity for several hours."
Men fought better with full stomachs, even though for some it might be their last meal. A sobering thought, he reflected; but it was a foolish optimist that thought an enemy frigate could be captured or destroyed without casualties.
Seven men sat round the table at mess number eight, eating salt beef from wooden plates.
"Give the bread barge a fair wind," Stafford said to Rossi, who was sitting at the inboard end of the table. The Italian pushed across the wooden box, known as a "barge" and which contained hard biscuit, which went by the name of "bread". This bread had reached the stage where it was beginning to soften; no matter what anyone did, weevils would start to inhabit it and the wise seaman would give the biscuit a brisk tap on the table before starting to chew. The tap was intended to stun the weevils; it stopped them wriggling in the mouth, reminding a hungry man of their presence.
"What did that fellow really tell the captain, Jacko?" Rossi asked as he helped himself to biscuit, one of the few things that were not rationed.
"I didn't hear; I was in the boat," the American said. "All I heard was them talking to each other, the Italian skipper and his mate."
"Well, what were they saying?"
"They had such thick accents it was hard to understand them," said Jackson, who had learned his Italian in Tuscany, where the accent was comparatively pure. Although Capraia was one of the islands which made up the Tuscan Archipelago, each island had its own accent which bore little relation to what was generally known as "the Tuscan accent". "But they were talking about a French frigate, and I think that's what they wanted to talk to us about."
"Where were they from?"
'This island ahead of us, I think."
"Aha," Stafford said delightedly. "Stands to reason, they were warning us that there's a French frigate there!"
Jackson shrugged his shoulders. "They might have been reporting that they saw a French frigate three days ago - they haven't much idea about time."
" 'Ere, this beef died of old age," Stafford grumbled. "Just look at the colour of it. Boiled mahogany, that's what it is, and it's as tough as wood.
"Needs to spend another day boiling in the coppers. Another week," he amended, "not another day."
"So if there is a French frigate at this island," said the Frenchman, Gilbert, whose English was almost fluent, "what do you think we are going to do?"
Jackson waited until he had finished chewing a piece of the beef. "We were piped to dinner half an hour early, and knowing Mr Ramage that was to make sure we had eaten by the time we go into action. So if you ask me, he reckons we'll find this Frenchman in the next hour or two."
"And then what do we do?" asked another Frenchman, Auguste.
"We capture it," Jackson said simply.
"Just like that, eh?" said Gilbert, gesturing towards the bread barge, which Stafford pushed towards him.
"Why not?" asked Jackson.
"What's a French frigate doing at this island, then?" asked Stafford.
"Damned if I know," Jackson said. "I've never even heard of the place before. Either the Frenchies are capturing the place, in which case half their ship's company will be on shore, or else they're repairing damage, in which case they might not be able to get under way."
Rossi soaked a biscuit in the juice left on his plate. "After this morning, we deserve something easy. I thought we would be deaded."
"Killed," Jackson corrected. "So did I. It's nice to feel alive."
"To tell the truth, I'm surprised there are so many Frenchies at sea. I thought we got most of 'em at Trafalgar.'' Stafford sat back as though he had spoken his share of wisdom for the day.
"I did, too," Jackson admitted. "But when you come to think of it, there must have been ships at sea in other places, and now I suppose they are making for home."
"They're a bit late," Stafford said.
"Takes time for the French to get out orders to all the ships: they were probably short of frigates in Toulon to pass the word."
"I don't know about French frigates," Rossi said crossly, "but that beef is the worst we've had for a year or two."
" Yus, I reckon the contractor or the Navy Board are getting rid of some old stock. Just our luck to get it."
"Having fresh meat every three days while we were in Plymouth has spoiled you," Jackson said unsympathetically.
"Well, that was one good thing that came out of the Great Mutiny," Stafford said defensively. "Getting fresh meat from the shore every two or three days made me feel I was living like a lord."
"Lords get fresh meat every day," Jackson said drily. "That's one of the advantages of being a lord."
"Mr Ramage is a lord but he don't get fresh meat every day."
"Don't be daft, how could he?"
"Beats me," Stafford said with something approaching a sigh, "why someone like Mr Ramage, the son of an earl and a title of his own, should join the Navy in the first place. T'isn't as though he was pressed."
"Runs in the family," Jackson said. "You know as well as I do his father's an admiral. If Mr Ramage has a son, I expect he'll go into the Navy as well. It's a sort of tradition."
"Yus," Stafford said sagely, "it's time he had a family. He made a good choice marrying Lady Sarah. Never could see him marrying the Marcheeza."
"Marchesa," Jackson corrected without thinking. "No, well, she was a bit wild, on account of her being Italian. And she could never settle down in England on account of her being the ruler of Volterra. She got pulled two ways."
"You think she's still alive?" Rossi asked.
Jackson shook his head. "I can't see Boney letting her go back to Volterra: she'd rouse up the people to throw out the French within a week of unpacking her bags."
"You reckon Mr Ramage thinks that?"
Jackson nodded. "From what I understood, he and his father did all they could to persuade her not to leave England when the peace was signed because they knew it would not last."
"And Mr Orsini? After all, she's his aunt."
"He must know by now. He's not a kid any more. Just think of him when he first joined the ship. Just a young boy then. Now he's a young man. Almost, anyway, and as good a seaman as anyone in the ship, except Mr Ramage and Mr Southwick."
"This Marchesa," Gilbert asked. "Was she beautiful?"
Jackson nodded. "Yes. She was tiny-about five feet tall. Black hair. Very Italian, if you know what I mean. Very fiery. You could see she was used to ruling."
"And Mr Ramage, he fell in love with her?"
"We thought so: after we rescued her in Italy, she went to live with Mr Ramage's parents, and we thought they'd get married."
"But Mr Ramage went off and married Lady Sarah," Gilbert said, "and she is very English!"
"Very," Jackson said. "A real lady. Just about the opposite to the Marchesa in every way. Don't get me wrong," Jackson added hastily, "the Marchesa was a real lady too, but she - well, a lot of the time, she seemed to be in a passion about something or other. Lady Sarah always seems so calm - as you know, since you saw her in France."
"Ah, what calm," Gilbert said, and Auguste, Louis and Albert nodded their heads in agreement. "Calm without being cold. A very passionate lady under that calm, and so brave."
"It must be sad for Mr Ramage not knowing for sure about the Marchesa," Rossi said. "If he knew for certain she was dead, well, that would be that. And if he knew she was alive, then there is nothing to worry about. But never being sure . . . that must be hard, for him and his family, let alone Mr Orsini."
"Well, worrying about it ain't going to sink that frigate," Stafford said, beginning to collect up the plates. "Since I'm the mess cook this week, let me get on with washing up these mess traps. Gawd, you're a messy eater, Rosey," he said, using the side of his palm to sweep crumbs from the hard biscuit on to a plate.