Martial excerpt from ‘Captain’s Surrender’
Peter, Josh and a senior Captain, Captain Joslyn have been sent to intercept a French three-decker believed to be trying to break the Hudson Bay treaty by capturing the bay for France, but they have come across a smaller scout ship on the way.
By the following day they had gained ten miles, and could see her quite clearly, green hull banded with cheerful yellow. The name painted on her stern was Virginie, a thirty two, a little heavier than the Macedonian. She was flying a Dutch flag, but apart from the sheer implausibility of this, the coxswain’s mate recognized her as the 32 which had taken him prisoner in ’67 and had then been under Captain Jean-Paul deBourne, a gentleman of the old school.
“Sir,” said Peter’s First Lieutenant, the newly senior Mr. Howe, “that’s the Hudson Strait ahead, sir. If we don’t do something now, and there is a two-decker in the Bay, well, our prospects will be considerably worse.”
The man affected Peter like a bad smell – quite unfairly, for he was a competent officer, and this was a justified worry that Peter shared. He supposed it was just that he was used to Joshua there, with whom he would have shared his thoughts, and the knowledge that Josh was on his own ship, inaccessible, made his rigid back ache.
“Mr. Howe, I suppose it has not occurred to you that I might have already thought of this? Nor that your asking the question is disrespectful in the utmost to Captain Joslyn, who can be supposed to have thought of this too?”
“No sir, sorry, sir,” said Howe, rubbing a hand over the cocoa-brown stubble on his chin and looking cowed. Worried that he might be turning into a monster of authority like Walker, Peter relented.
“However, I think we can begin putting things in train for action. We won’t clear until we’re given the order, but there will be no harm in putting out the fearnought screens and slow-match now.
“Aye aye, sir.” Howe smiled and hurried away, and feeling the need for something to counterbalance his presence, Peter took out his glass and trained it on the Macedonian, watching the small figure of her Captain on his own quarterdeck. He had left off the expensive and prestigious wig, and in the red tinged sunset light, his own hair shone like a point of fire. Peter, admiring both ship and man, huddled into his greatcoat, and felt briefly piercingly happy. Josh at his right hand, and a steady colleague at his left, a battle ahead, and the sun going down in a sheet of flame over a blue shadow of land. There was a smell of slow-match in the air, and all the world seemed eager, poised for glory.
Life, he thought, did not get much better than this, and at the thought some presentiment of danger made him reach out and stroke the Seahorse’s rail, touching wood.
The signal to engage broke out on the Asp and time for reflection was over. On deck the cannons were set loose, and there was a rumbling below as the larger 38 pounders were brought into action on the gun deck. Ship’s boys ran up from the armory with canisters of shot and powder, and the swivel guns at the bow were already shotted and primed.
“All divisions ready, sir,” Howe reported, returning like an unwanted guest.
“Bow chasers fire at will,” Peter commanded, “and a guinea for the man who shoots out the first sail.”
The swivels barked with a high pitched note, like terriers, and the crews of the cannon tied up their hair with their scarves, spat on their hands. Seahorse plunged through the smoke and the cold arctic air was briefly warm and thick, smelling of gunpowder.
But the Virginie had been lying to them about her speed. Now her Captain trimmed the yards, she filled, and staysails broke out on all masts, spritsail and spritsail topsail on her boom. At once she leaped forward out of range. Peter ordered staysails set himself, and royals, touching the braces of the masts to feel whether they would take it. To starboard, the Macedonian came up beside them, her more powerful chasers firing. A ball hit the Virginie’s stern galley and a spray of glass leaped up, glittering. A little closer and – though they could not rake her with a broadside – they might keep up a steady fire with the swivels, sending shot the whole unprotected length of her deck.
No, not unprotected, for now the Virginie’s stern chasers spoke – there was a yellow cloud of smoke and a roar. He felt the wind as the ball passed his elbow, made a hole in the hammock netting behind him, and he laughed, feeling all earthly cares depart at the nearness of death.
“Like that, is it?”
Looking back, he saw that the burst of speed was leaving the Asp behind, and he wondered why Virginie had not done this at the start, but had deliberately allowed the Fourth Rate to keep up. Was she that confident that the three decker she undoubtedly believed he knew nothing about would be enough to take on three British warships? Well, it was time to disabuse her of that notion, he’d take on the Indomitable on his own, if he had to, and win too.
The wind remained constant. Peter gave the order for the studding-sails to be set, just as the Virginie began her turn into Hudson straight. The speed cracked on, they were sailing now at 13 knots straight towards Virginie’s turned broadside, and the French Captain took the opportunity to open a full roaring fire, raking the Seahorse from stem to stern. The air was full of metal. One of the gun crew, receiving a ball in the breast, was literally burst apart and his limbs landed on either side of the boat, his severed head catching in the splinter netting and hanging there.
The men on deck flung themselves flat on the boards, including Midshipman Prendergast, a boy of thirteen, for whom this was his first experience of battle.
Peter walked over to the boy, acutely conscious that the gun crews on the Virginie were re-loading and that the second broadside would be closer, more deadly, as the strip of water between the vessels narrowed. “Stand up, Mr. Prendergast,” he said firmly. “A gentleman does not cower.” He took the boy by the elbow, feeling the racking shudders of fear, and stood him on his feet, with a smile. Then he leaned forward and whispered the words his own Captain had told him on a similar occasion, long ago. “If you cannot be brave, it is perfectly adequate to pretend. But pretend you must. How would the men feel otherwise, seeing their officers afraid?”
The boy gave him a waxy smile in return and nodded. Then he was promptly sick into his hat.