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CHAPTER FOUR

Ramage leaned with his elbows on the top of the binnacle box, looking at the chart spread out by Southwick and held down by paperweights. There was the island of Capraia on the chart, and there it was in fact almost dead ahead.

On this course and with this wind the Calypso should just pass the southern end of the island. If the wind backed a point or two, she would have to tack, which he wanted to avoid.

"You can lay the southern end of the island comfortably?" he asked the quartermaster.

"Aye, sir, with a point in hand," the man answered.

The mountains and cliffs were sharp now: the island seemed to grow taller as they approached. I would not like to hit this coast on a dark night with a libeccio blowing, he thought to himself: nor, for that matter, would he want to have to land a boat on a calm day: there seemed to be no beaches: only rocks and cliffs.

How far was the southern end of the island? Perhaps two miles, and the Calypso was making about five knots against a head wind. Well, there was no need to leave everything to the last minute.

"Beat to quarters, Mr Hill," he said. "I want the guns loaded with grape."

The look of surprise on Hill's face reminded Ramage of the chance he was taking. It was not much of a chance if his guess was correct, but there was no avoiding the fact that a guess was a guess. He was, quite simply, guessing that either a proportion of the French frigate's crew would be on shore, or that they would be working on deck or aloft on some repairs.

In either case they would not be at quarters: grapeshot should cut them down, without doing a lot of damage to the ship. Surprise should be fairly easy: the Calypso, being French built, would be taken as a French-owned ship at first glance, and the rules of war allowed you to fly enemy colours, as long as you hauled them down and hoisted your own before opening fire. Surprise should be complete.

"Haul down our colours and hoist a Tricolour," he said. "Use a separate halyard for the Tricolour and leave our colours bent on, so that we can switch them quickly."

"Very well, sir," Hill said with a grin: he immediately saw what Ramage intended doing. It was hardly a new trick, but given the Calypso's French sheer it was likely to succeed.

Ramage looked up again from the chart as the drum began thudding its urgent summons to quarters; a thudding reinforced by the shrilling of bosun's calls and the harsh and urgent cries of the bosun's mates.

Once again the whole process began: decks wetted and sanded; the magazine unlocked by the gunner and the second captains of each gun collecting locks, lanyards and prickers; boys hurrying down with their wooden cases to collect cartridges; the guns run in ready to be loaded; rammers, sponges and wormers put ready; slowmatches lit and hung over the edges of the tubs of water.

How many times have I given that order? Ramage reflected. Hundreds of times. How many times had it ended with action? He had lost count. Most times, of course, it was routine: every day the ship greeted the dawn at general quarters, when a sail could come out of the vanishing darkness and, in wartime, any sail could be the enemy. And in daylight, whenever a strange sail was sighted-unless it was obviously a fisherman or some other harmless vessel -the ship went to quarters. A minimum of three times a day; more likely ten or a dozen times. On top of gunnery exercises, which he ordered almost daily, there was plenty going on to keep that wretched gunner busy: he was always complaining that he never had an opportunity to black the guns, because the blacking took several hours to dry.

Looking forward over the quarterdeck rail he could see the men running to their stations. To an ignorant eye the men seemed to be running in all directions, like a disturbed anthill; to a trained eye the men were running with a purpose, the direction the result of months of training and experience.

Aitken came up the quarterdeck ladder to take over the conn from Hill, who had to go down to his division of guns, and now Southwick came up the ladder, adjusting the strap of the scabbard in which was housed a great double-bladed sword which he delighted to swing like a flail whenever he could get into action.

Soon Aitken was reporting to Ramage as each division of guns shouted that it was loaded and ready to be run out. If he was going to surprise the French, running out the guns would be one of the last orders he gave before opening fire.

Until he saw where the French frigate was lying, he would not know which broadside he would be using; but each stand of grapeshot comprised ten shot, each larger than a hen's egg and weighing a pound. So one broadside, not including the carronades, would see 160 grapeshot being hurled at the Frenchman by sixteen guns.

The idea, he thought grimly, is to kill Frenchmen without damaging the ship too much: he did not want to end up capturing a hulk which he would have to tow to Naples: he wanted a ship that a prize crew could sail in the Calypso's wake, British colours flying over the French. Of course, he thought, wryly, everything could go wrong and the Frenchman would end up towing the Calypso into Toulon, French colours over the British . . .

"I'm just going below for a moment," he told Aitken, and went down to his cabin. He sat down at his desk and unlocked the top drawer. First he took out a canvas pouch which was rolled up and pushed to the back. The mouth of the pouch had brass eyelets through which a drawstring ran, and the pouch itself was heavy because there was a strip of lead in the bottom. From the drawer he took out the signal book, the little booklet containing the secret challenges and replies, and his journal. He stuffed them into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. He put the bag back in the drawer, which he left unlocked so that in an emergency the canvas bag could be grabbed and then thrown over the side where it would sink rapidly, taking its secrets with it.

With the canvas bag taken care of he walked over to the forward bulkhead and took down his sword from its rack. He slipped the strap of the scabbard over his shoulder, adjusting the sword down his left side. Secret papers and sword: that was all he had to do. He went back up the companionway, acknowledging the salute of the sentry at his door.

Standing on the fore side of the quarterdeck again, looking over the bow, the island now seemed much nearer: he could make out the folds and fissures in the cliffs and see the waves breaking as a lacy fringe against the rocks lining the coast.

He looked across at Southwick, who grinned cheerfully and said: "Another mile and we'll be able to see round the corner. We'll probably find that the frigate's not there: she left last night north-about round the island bound for Toulon."

"I hope not: you haven't been in action for several weeks, and I don't want you to get out of the habit."

"If she's there, let's lay alongside and board her," Southwick said, slapping the scabbard of his sword. "Let me lead one of the boarding parties: that'll save m'sword from getting rusty."

Boarding parties! The ship's company was already organized into boarding parties in the quarters bill, which every man knew by heart. But it was necessary to give specific orders to the Marines.

"Pass the word for Mr Rennick," he told Aitken.

The Marine lieutenant arrived, smart in his uniform, face redder than usual because of the tightness of his collar, and with his sword swinging by his side.

"Ah, Rennick. If we get the chance of boarding this fellow round the corner - and we don't even know yet if he's still there - I want you and your Marines to board aft and secure the quarterdeck, particularly the wheel. It'll be up to you, in other words, to seize control of the ship."

"I understand perfectly, sir," Rennick said cheerfully. "Do you want us to cut the wheelropes?"

"No, certainly not," Ramage said hastily. "I want to get her under way again with the least delay."

"Very well, sir," Rennick said, saluting smartly and hurrying down the ladder, to where his men were drawn up in two files, the drummer boy on the right" and Sergeant Ferris standing in front of them. Ferris had previously inspected every man. He had found fault with the pipeclay on four crossbelts and the straps of three muskets. Two men's hair was not tidy enough and the polish on four pairs of boots did not measure up to his exacting standards. The names of all the offending men had been taken; after the action they would be called to account.

Rennick stood in front of the men while Ferris called them to attention. Briefly Rennick gave them their orders. Without saying so in as many words, Rennick managed to convey the idea that the Marines had been singled out to secure the quarterdeck; that it was a task that could not be left to the sailors. Rennick was a firm believer in healthy competition; in his imagination he could already see himself reporting to Mr Ramage that the Frenchman's quarterdeck had been secured. Most of the time the Marines had to do all the humdrum tasks in the ship-sentries at the watercask, the captain's cabin door, the magazine and so on. Very occasionally -all too rarely - they had the chance to shine.

Ramage felt surprisingly cheerful. It was probably the reaction from earlier in the day, but frigate against frigate was a much more cheerful proposition than a frigate against two ships of the line was. In fact, he admitted, the prospect of a frigate against two ships of the line was very depressing, and it was no credit to him that they had survived the encounter. It was a point that would not be lost on their Lordships, that it was a mistake on the part of the French captain which had caused the collision, not a brilliant stroke by Captain Ramage. The most that he could claim, Ramage thought, was that he had given the Frenchman a hint. Not a hint that had caused the collision, but a hint that set him moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile the southern tip of the island was a great deal nearer and now fine on the larboard bow. Ramage took up his telescope and examined the headland.

"There looks to be deep water close in," he told Aitken. "We'll pass round it a cable off."

Two hundred yards should keep them clear of any stray rocks without making them pass round the headland so far off that the Frenchman would spot them sooner than he need. Round the corner the cliffs would drop away, likely as not, giving way to flatter land. The vital thing was the first sight of the frigate. On it would depend the way the Calypso attacked her: which broadside would be fired first, whether it was going to be a matter of slamming alongside her as she lay at anchor and boarding her in the smoke, or whether it would turn into a battle of broadsides, the Frenchman cutting her anchor cable and getting under way so that she could manoeuvre.

If she got under way, Ramage realized, he would have lost his greatest advantage, surprise: if only he could get round the headland and on to the anchored ship - presupposing she was there and at anchor - he would gain several minutes because the Calypso looked like a French ship and was flying French colours, but it would be a matter of minutes before the Frenchman challenged and then became suspicious of the way the Calypso was manoeuvring.

Suddenly the Calypso was round the headland. Spreading out on the larboard side the coast went straight for a mile or two, then came eastward and seaward to form a small peninsula with an old fort perched in the middle of it, and then beyond the land curved round in a great bight, with a small harbour - obviously Capraia itself- in the corner. And the frigate was at anchor just off the end of the peninsula, her main and foreyards down on deck, obviously being worked on by the French carpenters. She could not get under way: that much was certain.

Rake her or board? Ramage thought quickly. Raking her meant sailing to and fro across her stern, firing broadsides into her unprotected transom to hurl the shot the length of the ship. Boarding meant pitting the Calypso's boarding parties against the entire French crew, with only a certain amount of surprise on their side. Practically none, in fact. It would take them time to load guns and run them out to fire broadsides: it would take only a minute to snatch up sword or pike to repel boarders.

So rake her: there was room enough to pass between the end of the headland and her stern as she lay head to wind. Much would depend on that first raking broadside.

Quickly he gave instructions to Aitken. "Clew up the courses and the t'gallants," he said. "We'll manoeuvre under topsails, and that'll fool the French a bit longer because it'll look as though we're going to anchor.

"Then we'll cut close "across their stern, firing the starboard broadside. Then we'll get clear, turn and come back to give 'em the larboard broadside. After we've done that a few times we might see them strike their colours."

"Aye aye, sir," Aitken said cheerfully, obviously delighted at the thought of going into action. He picked up the speaking trumpet to give the first of the sail orders.

Ramage gave fresh orders to the quartermaster and the Calypso bore away a point, sailing closer to the coast and now almost on a broad reach. There was a slatting of canvas as the men started clewing up the huge courses, and the Calypso slowed down. Ramage watched as the corners of the great sails were hauled in diagonally, and then the centre was drawn up vertically, as though folding a napkin. In the meantime men were scrambling aloft, taking the shrouds at the run, clambering up the ratlines like monkeys, and then working their way outward along the topgallant yards, stepping along the footropes.

From the deck the men seemed tiny, but these topmen were the most agile and well-trained in the ship, and they hauled the topgallants on to the yard and passed the gaskets that secured them.

Ramage nodded approvingly. "Quite a harbour stow," he said to Aitken. "I hope the French appreciate it."

Now he could make out the Tricolour flapping from the French frigate's stern in what was a little less than a strong breeze. A breeze that would mean the frigate was lying steady to her anchor cable and not yawing about. A breeze that meant raking her should be comparatively easy.

Ramage hitched his sword round so that it hung more comfortably at his side. If they were going to board, he would get a brace of Sea Service pistols loaded. The thought of pistols had obviously crossed Southwick's mind because he handed two, butt first, to Ramage. "You might be needing these, sir," he said. "I had a couple of brace loaded while you were collecting your sword."

Ramage noticed that the master had a pistol tucked into each side of his belt. What with the pistols and that great meat cleaver of a sword, obviously it would break the old man's heart if they did not board. Ramage shrugged to himself: they might end up boarding yet; a sea fight was more unpredictable than the weather.

Reduced now to her topsails, the Calypso was making less than five knots, with her bow wave making little more than a chuckling sound under her stem.

Then Orsini hurried up the quarterdeck ladder, saluted Ramage and reported: "Starboard side guns all ready to fire sir. But they are loaded with grape," he added anxiously.

"I know," Ramage said, and then, conscious that it was the only way that Orsini would ever learn, said: "We are going to rake her. Grape will cause more casualties."

Ramage noted that Aitken had sent the young midshipman round to the guns, instead of relying on a bellow through the speaking trumpet.

He looked across at the French frigate and at that moment Orsini snatched up a telescope: "She has just hoisted two flags, sir!" he said. "Probably the challenge for the day."

"Well, we don't have the answer so we'll ignore it. Make sure we have a couple of men ready to lower the French colours and hoist ours."

"I have a couple of men waiting at the halyards, sir," Orsini said.

Ramage nodded. Paolo was turning into a good young officer: if only Gianna could see him. He shook his head: this was no time to be thinking about her fate. Worrying about it, rather.

"Courses are clewed and t'gallants furled, sir," Aitken reported.

The anchor! Ramage realized that the Frenchmen would be Batching the Calypso through telescopes, and sharp eyes would notice that although she was reducing sail, her anchors were still catted.

"Send half a dozen men to the starboard bower," he snapped. "Tell them to look as though we're preparing to anchor."

Southwick swore and Aitken looked crestfallen as he shouted the order. He put down the speaking trumpet and admitted: "I didn't think of that.'

"Neither did I," Ramage said. "I hope the French haven't either."

The French frigate was now five hundred yards away on the starboard bow, with the short peninsula to larboard and the gap between them about six hundred yards wide: the French captain had anchored to give himself plenty of swinging room.

Just enough room, Ramage noted ironically, for an enemy frigate to wear back and forth across her stern. And if she cut her cable the wind would blow her straight on to the rocks at the foot of the peninsula. Her captain could not be blamed for that because with this wind the whole coast was a lee shore, and with her yards struck down on deck she could not move, although if the weather turned bad they could get the yards up again and under way in a few hours.

The wind was freshening: seaward there were the occasional whitecaps and the boulders at the foot of the cliffs were growing white collars of spray. Occasionally one of the topsails slatted, caught by an odd eddy of wind and enough to make the quartermaster glance aloft anxiously.

Now the Calypso was heading for the gap between the frigate's stern and the peninsula. Ramage guessed that the crews would be waiting for the guns to be run out. The second captain of every gun on the starboard side, after a quick glance through the port, was now preparing to cock the flintlock and then stand well back. The gun captains would be getting ready to take up the strain on their long lanyards, crouching behind the guns, left leg flung out to one side and sighting along the barrel, waiting for the target to appear.

Should he then switch to roundshot? He decided not; he wanted to kill men without damaging the ship: he had already decided that, so he would continue with grapeshot. It would be easy enough to change later on, when he could see the effect of the fall of shot.

He gave a helm order to Aitken, who passed it on to the quartermaster, and then another, a half point this time. Then, a couple of minutes later a quarter point. Now the Calypso was lined up precisely to go through the gap, passing the French frigate's stern about twenty yards off.

Now far the waiting. One could wait an hour for a postchaise to arrive at the next post inn; one could wait half an hour for one's wife to finish primping her hair and generally getting ready to go to a reception; but the last minute or two before going into action were as much as a man could bear: not because of nervousness but simply because of the tension mounting before the first gun fired.

She was Le Tigre: he could now read the name on her transom as she swung in the wind. Red lettering on yellow, a vivid slash of colour on an otherwise black hull. Guns not run out; fore and main yards down on deck. Through the glass he could see a group of officers watching the Calypso from Le Tigre's quarterdeck: no doubt waiting for the challenge to be answered and the Calypso to run up her numbers in the French Navy List.

They seemed to be in no hurry; there were three officers and a couple of seamen on the quarterdeck, and Ramage could see the sun glinting on a couple of telescopes, but there seemed no sense of urgency in the Frenchmen's stance; no indication that they regarded themselves as in any danger.

They were fooled by the Calypso's build and the fact that she was flying a Tricolour, a perfectly legitimate ruse de guerre, providing you lowered and hoisted your proper colours before opening fire.

Now he could distinguish the salt dried along Le Tigre's water-line; her quarterboats were lowered it and secured to the boat boom amidships; there was a line of laundry rigged forward and displaying a couple of dozen shirts in different bright colours.

Ramage noticed that the hammocks were not stowed in the nettings on top of the bulwarks: presumably they had been left slung below, in contrast to the Royal Navy's strict practice of having them stowed first thing every morning. Apart from clearing out the lowerdeck, it provided a thick canvas barricade against small arms fire.

Through the glass he could see a dozen men working on the mainyard and another dozen grouped round the foreyard. Obviously Le Tigre had sprung both yards; it looked as though a sudden change of wind (or a mistake by the men at the wheel) had resulted in the ship being caught aback, the wind on the foreside of the sails pressing the yards back against the masts. It was easy enough to do; and if that was what had happened, then Le Tigre was lucky to escape with only a couple of sprung yards; ships had been dismasted by being caught aback.

And that has passed another minute, Ramage realized, beginning now to feel excited rather than just tense: in another minute he would give the order to run the guns out; then number one gun on the starboard side would fire, and then the rest would follow in sequence.

There was one task remaining. He turned to Orsini and said sharply: "Lower the French colours and hoist our own!"

He turned to Aitken: "Run out the guns!"

He lifted the telescope to his eye again, watching the group of French officers. He saw one of them gesticulating and was conscious that behind him the Calypso's Tricolour had been hauled down. But it was too late for the French now; in a few moments the British colours would be hoisted and a few moments after that the first round of grapeshot would be smashing into her stern - he could hear the rumbling of the guns being run out.

He glanced aft, saw the British colours hoisted home, and looked forward again. Almost at once a gun gave a throaty cough and smoke streamed out of the Calypso's side; then there was a ripple of noise as the rest of the guns fired in succession.

The French frigate's stern seemed to pass quite leisurely along the Calypso's starboard side, giving the gunners plenty of time to aim, Ramage noted. And, as he watched, Le Tigre's transom appeared to dissolve in a cloud of dust, the stern lights of the captain's cabin beaten in as the grapeshot smashed their way through and went on the length of the ship, killing or maiming anyone in their path and flinging up lethal splinters.

Finally the last gun in the broadside had fired and Ramage was beginning to cough as the smoke billowed aft, curling along in oily coils to cover the quarterdeck. He turned to Aitken: "Ready to wear round? Now we'll give them the other broadside!"

A shouted order to the quartermaster set the men spinning the wheel, and Aitken's bellows through the speaking trumpet brought the Calypso round to larboard, her sails slatting as the wind passed across her stern. Seamen hauled at braces to swing the yards round and then others hardened in the sheets to trim the sails. Then Aitken shouted down to the gunners to prepare to fire the larboard broadside.

The Calypso did not have enough men to fire both broadsides at once and crews from the starboard guns ran across the deck to the other side. Gun captains hurriedly snatched up the lanyards and uncoiled them: second captains checked the quills in the vents and the priming powder before cocking the locks and standing back.

As Jackson and his crew ran across the deck Stafford exclaimed: "Did you see what we did, Jacko? Just about bashed his sternlights in!"

As Jackson reached for the lanyard coiled on the breech he grinned: "Yes, we've spoiled that French captain's furniture!"

By now the Calypso had swung round and was steering an opposite course across the frigate's stern. There were no last-minute aiming instructions: when they had loaded the gun they had left the barrel elevated just enough to hit the French frigate's stern; the wedge-shaped quoin adjusting the elevation of the barrel was pushed in more than three-quarters of its length, so that the barrel was horizontal.

Suddenly to Jackson's right the first gun of the broadside fired and was followed by the second, and by the time the French frigate's stern was passing the port in front of Jackson the deck was a swirling cloud of smoke.

Jackson waited until the battered sternlights were in his sights and then gave the lanyard a brisk tug. The gun barked and spewed smoke and flame before crashing back in recoil, and as soon as it was thrust hard up against the breeching, Rossi and the Frenchmen went into action: a water-soaked sponge was thrust down the bore, a powder monkey ran forward with a cartridge which Gilbert snatched up and cradled into the bore, Auguste pressed it in with the rammer and, as he felt it come hard up in the chamber of the breech, gave the rammer a sharp jab.

Albert slid in a wad which Auguste rammed home while Rossi stood by with the stand of grapeshot. He swung it up and into the muzzle helped by Louis and once again Auguste thrust with his rammer, helped by Rossi because of the weight of the grapeshot. Albert was ready with another wad, and as soon as it was rammed home he lifted his hand and the men ran to the tackles to run the gun out again. As soon as it had rumbled into position, Stafford thrust the pricker into the vent hole and wriggled it about to make sure the point had penetrated the cartridge case and made a passage for the powder. Then he slid in a quill and sprinkled priming powder on top. Now the gun was loaded and ready for the next broadside when the Calypso had worn again.

Jackson had coiled the lanyard ready and put it on the breech, and as soon as he saw that Stafford had finished he shouted and the crew ran back to their gun on the starboard side. By now the last gun of the larboard broadside had fired and yet again the Calypso's sails were slatting as she wore round clear of the rocky tip of the peninsula.

By now the Calypso was streaming smoke through all her gunports as she turned, drifting aft to the quarterdeck, where the smoke from the carronades already had Ramage, Aitken and Southwick coughing and wiping their eyes.

Ramage could see that with Le Tigre's transom now smashed in the grapeshot must be sweeping through the length of the ship below deck, and there could be few men left alive below.

"Orsini!" he shouted, "run round and tell all the officers at their quarters that I want their guns sweeping the Frenchman's decks HOW!"

Paolo ran off down the quarterdeck ladder, glad to have something to do in a battle in which up to now he had been only a spectator. He quickly found Hill and passed on the order, which the third lieutenant at once bellowed to his excited gun captains. Paolo ran on along the length of guns passing the word to the red-haired Kenton and finally the fourth lieutenant, William Martin.

At once the gun captains shouted orders to their crews, who snatched up handspikes, long iron-tipped levers, which were slid under the breeches of the guns and took the weight while the quoins were pulled further out to raise the elevation of the barrels.

The Calypso was now ready for her third run across the French frigate's stern and Ramage found himself wishing the wind would freshen to clear the smoke from the deck. The thought had hardly formed in his mind before the first gun in the starboard broadside was firing, followed in turn by the bronchitic coughing of the rest of the guns.

Ramage watched the grapeshot sweep the French ship's deck, seeing men fling up their arms as they were cut down.

Then the Calypso wore round again and the guns' crews ran across to the other side, snatched up handspikes and adjusted their aim. With quoins newly positioned and the captains sighting along the barrels to make sure the elevation was correct, in a matter of moments the first gun was firing, followed in sequence by the rest of the guns.

Ramage could see the grapeshot slamming into the yards as they lay across the deck. The mainyard slewed slightly as all the grapeshot from one gun smashed into the end.

At Aitken shouted out the orders to bring the Calypso round again, Southwick gave a bellow of delight and snatched at Ramage's arm. He was pointing aloft at the French frigate, and a few moments later Ramage realized what the master had seen: the French ship's colours were being lowered. She was surrendering. Honourably so, Ramage thought: with those two big yards down on deck and unable to manoeuvre, it was only a matter of time before the Calypso, wearing relentlessly across her stern, pounded her to pieces.

Ramage was just about to tell Aitken to order the guns to stop firing when he realized that a breathless sailor was standing in front of him. "Mainmast lookout, sir, I can't make you hear," he gasped. "There's a French frigate coming down from the north, dose in with the coast."



CHAPTER THREE | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER FIVE



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