Floating Gold [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Margaret Muir
eBook Category: Historical Fiction
eBook Description: From a beach near Portsmouth, Captain Quintrell observes a fleet of ships little knowing he will soon have command of a frigate and be entrusted with secret orders. Unaware of the dangers awaiting him, he sails south where sabotage, murder and the rumblings of a volcanic island pose as much threat as a broadside from a French man-of-war. Historical Nautical Adventure by Margaret Muir; originally published by Robert Hale [UK]
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, Published: 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2012
Isle of Wight - July 1802
The human flotsam, lolling in the shallow waters near the mouth of the Bembridge River, smelled of fish. Waves washing around the corpse teased it, turning the head this way and that, confusing the sightless eyes; whilst beneath the body, the sea hissed, sucking its salt through sand and broken shell. The next incoming wave lifted the corpse and carried it further up the beach but, as the water receded, the man's right arm, as if reluctant to part from its mode of transport, appeared to reach out for it. But the two-faced tide of the English Channel had its own agenda. It had done its duty and, having no quarrel with the man, had returned him to the land. Now it was time to gather its morning petticoats and withdraw.
Oliver Quintrell stepped closer to the body and removed his hat. It was an automatic gesture performed out of respect for a life departed, yet the sight of the corpse did not stir the slightest quiver of emotion in him. There was no doubt in his mind where the man had come from. The yellowed breeches, stained with the provocative stamp of a black arrow, provided him with that information. The only question the body's presence posed: had the man fallen, jumped, or been thrown from one of the prison hulks anchored in Portsmouth Harbour?
That question would remain unresolved, and in the circumstances any answer would be quite inconsequential. But how the body had drifted from the harbour and floated unnoticed across the busy anchorages of Spithead and St Helens Road, intrigued him. No doubt the tide had carried it from the confines of the harbour and spewed it out through the narrow entrance where it had to contend with the fickle currents of The Solent. Whatever factors had transported it, be it wind, current or tide, it was obvious that the corpse had only recently arrived on the beach at Bembridge where it was to provide a feast for the island's gulls, crows and scavenging foxes.
In Oliver Quintrell's mind only two things were certain -- no one would be looking for an escaped prisoner this far from Portsmouth, and no one would be grieving the man's loss.
It being the only item of interest on the beach that morning, the captain tallied his mental observations. For a carcase that was only slightly bloated, the facial features appeared surprisingly normal. The face, streaked by brown hair braided with slivers of green weed, was not unpleasant. The mouth -- opened in the final gasping moment of life -- showed a full set of teeth. A fuzz of adolescent hair patched the chin, and the skin was virtually unblemished showing no evidence of powder burns, and despite the broad keloid scar almost dissecting his left cheek (testament to a cruel master or defiance of authority), it was evident the escapee was little more than a lad.
Not long dead, Oliver thought. Likely he had swum or been supported on driftwood which had carried him on his watery journey to intended freedom. But the prisoner would have only survived part of the short summer night, succumbing to the sea as the eastern sky glowed in the hour before dawn. In his opinion, as the lad had suffered no submarine disfigurement, his sojourn in the water had been insufficient to marinate his flesh to suit the palates of the local fishes.
Pathetic wretch, he thought. A fool to escape from a prison hulk. On the other hand, he considered a man a coward if he lacked the courage to try to escape from captivity. But on this fine July morning, beside the shimmering stretch of water where The Solent and English Channel coalesced, the death of an escaped prisoner; be he English or French, mattered not a jot.
Closing his eyes for a moment, it was easy for the captain to re-enter the world most familiar to him. He pictured a white beach the morning after a battle. A bay littered with bloated bodies, some washed ashore, others turning in the shallow water like pigs roasting on spits. Carcases rolling over and over unable to made landfall. Dead men stripped naked of both clothes and skin. Faceless faces devoid of their human masks. Arms, wrenched from shoulders, scattered haphazardly. Hands poking up through sand. Fingers outstretched in supplication. Severed heads without ears. Human hair blowing in the breeze. The scream of frenzied gulls.
Such an inglorious end stripped a man not only of his raiments but all evidence of nationality, allegiance and rank. For those departed souls there was neither honour nor glory nor recognition -- not even a Christian burial. Their mortal remains would be stripped clean by armies of invading crabs. And there were many fat crabs on the beaches that season.
But such florid pictures were spoken little of in the London coffee houses and written of, even less, in the Naval Chronicle. They were the unwritten lines which the astute reader was expected to embellish for himself.
This was the distasteful side of war at sea, but how often over the past nine months had he prayed he could be part of it again. To return to the sea. To sail into the Mediterranean. To navigate the alligator-infested banks of the Indus River. To round the Horn. To experience the thunder of a hundred guns fired in a rippling broadside. To breathe the acrid smoke. To drink a toast to victory. To serve once again in his Majesty's service. But above all, to have a command.
For months now his weekly requests to the Lords of the Admiralty had met with platitudes. His most recent submissions had not even been acknowledged. As he gazed out to the ships at anchor, Oliver knew full well he was not the only captain land-locked since the outbreak of peace. But that fact provided little consolation.
He was thirty-two years of age, boasted the rank of post captain, yet was currently only master of an expanse of deserted beach, in command of a view, and able to navigate nothing more than the pieces of flotsam offered up by the sea.
A wave washing over his shoes soaked his white stockings and returned his thoughts to reality. That his feet were wet was quite inconsequential to him, but the water marks around his ankles were bound to evoke a derisive comment from his wife. How tiresome that type of admonishment was. Such trivial things didn't matter at sea. How often was the weather-deck awash? How often did men grapple to stay upright with water washing the length of the ship? Amidst choking smoke, blood and the noise of battle, did a sailor really care about a few inches of sea-water? Certainly not!
Oliver shook his head in frustration. Recounting those scenes was the closest he would come to pacing a quarterdeck for the present.
Overhead a pair of gulls distracted him. They reeled and squawked, then hovered, necks outstretched, beaks pointing, legs dangling. They were becoming impatient. The pair had observed the carcase even before the captain had approached. Now their cries were prompting him to move on. They wanted to be first to sample the choicest morsels from the upturned face. Further along the beach a waiting battalion marched back and forth at the waterline, advancing and retreating with each spill of a wave, awaiting their opportunity.
Though the birds didn't heed the distant sound, from the north came the distinctive echo of a gun salute. Oliver knew one of His Majesty's ships had returned to port. Early that morning he had observed a second-rate man-of-war from his bedroom window. From her spread of canvas it had been obvious that the lack of wind and state of the tide was making her passage to Portsmouth difficult.
That particular ship was no longer in view but there was no shortage of vessels in St Helens Road to divert his attention. A fleet of merchantmen was anchored to the north of the river's mouth, little more than a mile away. For more than three weeks Oliver had observed their number swell from a scattered handful to over forty assorted vessels -- sloops, snows, brigs, barks, schooners and cutters. To the casual observer, the criss-cross of running and standing rigging presented a cat's cradle of tangled cordage.
It appeared obvious to the captain that they were preparing to sail. Some heading to the West Indies, others the East. Throughout the war the navy had provided escort ships to accompany the convoys but in a time of peace this was no longer deemed necessary. Despite this, a 64-gun man-of-war was anchored at the northern end of the convoy, its tall masts dwarfing those of the other vessels in the roadstead.
There was no question in Oliver's mind that the sailors on board the merchantmen would be content. Many had been pressed into service during the war years and only since the peace had they been able to return to their wealthy mercantile employers. Lucky indeed were those sailors. They would be paid full wages, while landlocked naval officers, like himself, had to subsist on half pay, while the common seamen, littering the alleys and alehouses of every port in England, had to scratch a living as best they could.
The enforced spell of indolence had done little for Oliver apart from increasing his frustrations and adding inches to his waistline. His morning stroll, along the beach and around the banks of the Bembridge Estuary, was the only exercise he took. He discounted the games of croquet which his wife prescribed. That did nothing to improve his figure or his temperament.
It was a year since he had been carried ashore to spend three months gazing at the lofty painted ceilings of the Greenwich Seaman's Hospital. And when at last he was discharged and eager to return to service, the Treaty of Amiens had been signed. This had confounded his frustrations and extended his absence from duty further.
But if Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed First Consul for Life, as was expected to happen, the peace would not last. That was not Oliver's personal opinion, but the feelings expressed by every officer he spoke to. That afternoon he must pen a letter to the Admiralty. It was almost three weeks since he had last written and it was now time for another request.
The rippling tide hissed and hushed as it turned from its jettisoned cargo and began its slow recoil to the sea, sucking the swollen waters of the Bembridge River with it. By midday all that would remain of the broad estuary would be a narrow freshwater steam serpentining through the layers of silt which even the wading swans and waterbirds would sink up to their bellies in.
Casting a final long look across the water, Oliver returned his hat and turned from the waterline. On the grass bordering the beach, a man was hurrying towards him. He was running, at times almost stumbling as his feet buried themselves in pockets of soft dry sand. The captain immediately recognised his steward, not by the velvet raiments which identified him as a household valet, but by the ungainly lolloping gait compounded by a slight bowing of the legs -- the indelible signature of a seaman.
Increasing his stride, Quintrell mounted the gentle incline to the point where the beach and land converged and tufts of aggressive grasses made their invading stand for possession.
'Captain,' the man hailed, from a distance of almost fifty yards.
'What is it, Casson?'
'Begging your pardon, sir, but I thought you'd want to know,' he called, slowing in an attempt to regain his breath. 'There's a letter at the house for you, Capt'n. Delivered near two hours ago, I'm told.'
'From the Admiralty?'
'Aye, Capt'n, it is. You said you wanted to be told immediately should such a message arrive.'
'Indeed, I did.'
As the pair hurried from the beach along the cart-track and up the rise to the white house on the hill, a frown furrowed Quintrell's brow but his manservant did not notice the expression. Casson was lagging behind, partially out of respect, but mainly due to the shortage of air in his lungs rendering him unable to maintain his master's pace.
'Were you not present when this letter was delivered?' Oliver asked, without turning his head.
'No, sir. I was set cleaning the silver. I only learned of it by chance just fifteen minutes ago.'
'Then my wife must have signed for it. Why on earth didn't she instruct you to fetch me immediately?'
The steward's discretion told him a reply was not expected.
Oliver's mind was alive with possibilities. 'Hurry man, there is no time to waste.'
'You think you might have a ship, sir?'
How could he possibly know the answer to that question until he had read the communication? But it could mean a commission. A ship. A return to service. In what capacity? He wondered.
During his extended sojourn in the Greenwich Hospital, his name had risen rapidly on the post captains' list -- a direct result of the deaths of many good men. Since March, however, when the peace treaty was signed, the list's status had changed very little. Now, with so many ships sitting idle, the chances of a command were slim.
Post captains, like himself, perused the lists with some trepidation, as new names filtered in from the bottom; the nephew of a Admiral, the son of a cabinet minister, the grandson of a Fellow of the Royal Society; names of men he had never read about in the Gazette -- young relatively inexperienced naval officers whose ascent on the promotional ladder had been bolstered, not by battle, but by the backing of title or money. Peace seemed no detriment to their progress. But for those more familiar names filling the top third of the list, few promotions were being granted. Without war, admirals did not die. Most lived to a ripe old age languishing in the comfort of prize money and pensions.
Oliver smiled cynically. England could afford to maintain its old men but not its grand old ladies. In the country's present financial state, the government was unable to justify preserving a fleet of redundant fighting ships. Every day saw another distinguished vessel dismasted for conversion to a prison hulk or more sadly, despatched to the breakers' yards. It truly was a travesty.
'If it is the news I have been hoping for, we might both be back at sea before too very long.'
'I pray you're right, Capt'n.'
'No more than I.'
Oliver lengthened his stride with the anticipation of receiving good news. Like a raw midshipman being rowed out to his first ship or a lieutenant receiving his first command, the sense of excitement welled within him.
The shocking alternative could see him banished to a desk job or promoted to port commander of some little-known disease-ravaged harbour on the other side of the globe. He hardly dare consider that possibility. Worse still he may be notified of an early pension -- enforced retirement from the service due to diminished health.
That is balderdash! he told himself. He was fully recovered. Fit to serve. Ready to command.
Casting those thoughts from his mind he turned back to his servant. 'You will accompany me to London, Casson.'
'Aye aye, Capt'n,' the manservant said, with a renewed bounce in his step. 'Do you think you will get a man-of-war?'
Oliver Quintrell smiled. 'I will settle for a sloop at this stage.'
'Ah, Oliver, you are back.'
The dressmaker attending Mrs Quintrell bobbed a small curtsey.
The captain acknowledged his wife. 'Where is it?' he asked, in a tone which sounded far more scornful than he had intended.
'Where is what, dearest?'
'The letter which arrived here earlier this morning.'
'Oh, I almost forgot,' she said flippantly, as her eyes were drawn to her husband's feet. 'Your shoes, Oliver! They are covered in sand.'
Without altering his expression, the captain considered his reply then consciously withheld his spontaneous response. He did not wish to express himself in a manner he would immediately regret, especially in front of a seamstress.
His wife waved her hand. 'It's over there somewhere. On the side table. I think it's buried under those bolts of material.'
'Thank you,' he said emphatically. 'You must understand, my dear, this communication could be of vital importance to me. To us.'
'Whatever can be of such vital importance to the navy in peacetime?'
Quintrell remained silent as he retrieved the letter which had sunk beneath a sea of blue silk surmounted by a well endowed pincushion resembling a hedgehog.
His wife turned away from him, tugging at the bodice of her dress. 'A little more fullness here, Sybil.'
Opting for the window seat, Oliver regarded the envelope for a moment then broke the sealing wax.
'I hope you won't mind taking tea alone, dear,' his wife continued. 'I do so want Sybil to finish this for me. Then I must be measured for my new gown.'
He nodded without appearing to listen.
'You haven't forgotten that we are invited to Stamford House on Friday, have you? Also, I accepted an invitation from the Armitages to dine with them on Thursday at eight.'
'Ah,' Quintrell said, as he folded the letter and returned it to its envelope. 'The Economics of Warfare by Reginald Armitage. He is the only man I know who is convinced he can put a measure on the cost of England's supremacy.'
'Don't be so cynical, dear. Reginald is a charming man. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge and is very well respected. And besides I have told Felicity that we will be most happy to attend -- so the matter is settled.'
'Then I am afraid you will have to attend alone. I shall be unavailable on both occasions.'
Extricating herself from the dressmaker's pins and needles, Victoria Quintrell turned to face her husband, but he was standing with his back to her.
The view from the window had captured his imagination and transported him far from the confines of the drawing room. That particular stretch of sea always intrigued him. It was a body of water which carried no name, yet its position was known intimately by every man afloat. This was the point where ships from Portsmouth sailed out from the shelter of the Isle of Wight; where the full force of the westerly wind was first felt and where ships altered course and the cry, full and by, reverberated through the rigging. It was the point where the sea swayed to the rhythm of the Atlantic swell as it relentlessly forced itself upon the English Channel.
In the distance Quintrell could see the royals and t'gallants of a ship slowly disappearing beneath the hazy line of the horizon. A merchantman bound for London? A Dutch East Indiaman heading home? A naval frigate? A privateer, perhaps? The distance was too great to identify it and his glass was in the library.
'I am required to attend the Admiralty,' he said, the hint of a smile threatening to curl his lips. 'Ten o'clock in the morning two days hence.'
'No, my dear,' he said, with a forgiving shake of the head. 'Admiralty House in Whitehall. Casson will accompany me.' He took out his pocket watch and opened it. 'I will leave this afternoon and take a boat from Ryde. There is little time to delay. I intend to stay at The George overnight and travel to London on the morrow. I am sure my sister will be only too pleased to accommodate me in the City.' He paused, cleared his throat, then continued in a softer tone. 'Regarding the Armitages and the invitation to Stamford House, you must tender my apologies. I am sorry to disappoint you, my dear, but it is unlikely I will return to Bembridge before Saturday.
Though the wind hardly rustled the trees on the banks of the Bembridge River, on the north coast at Ryde and across the Mother Bank, it was blowing briskly. As the navy launch headed for Portsmouth, punching its bow into the lively waters of The Solent, Captain Quintrell was not the only one to receive a dousing of sea-spray. But the captain had other things on his mind.
Resting his right forearm across the hat on his lap, Oliver pondered the remnants of his right hand hidden within a half-empty leather glove. It housed a thumb and forefinger and the malformed knuckle bearing the stumpy remnant of his middle digit. Nothing more. Such was the result of direct contact with a four pound cannon ball. He thanked God it had not carried away his whole arm. Or his head for that matter!
Without removing the glove, he squeezed his thumb and finger together. They were strong. He had made sure of that. He was certain he could grip the rigging on a heeling ship or control a helm in dirty weather. He knew he could draw his sword and hold a pen, a brush and a telescope. But he could not hold his wife.
He pulled the glove off and pondered the thoughts which had troubled him for many months. What was it about his disfigured hand that his wife hated? From the moment she had first seen it at the Seamen's Hospital, it had repelled her. She had said it resembled a talon or a spur. Cruel words which had hurt. Only after some argument had she conceded that it was better than an ungainly hook strapped to a stump, but she disliked it intensely and insisted he cover it at all times.
But the fact it embarrassed her in public was not the end of it. Not since his return home had Oliver been able to touch her, to run his finger through her hair, explore her contours, feel her warmth. The awkwardness of his left hand only accentuated his disability.
He still loved his wife, but by shutting off his touch, she was blocking the gangway to his affection. He could not deny that for several months while in hospital his mindless brain had failed to even recognise her, but that had been due to the brain infection and was unintentional on his part. Learning to live without affection was taking a considerable amount of conscious effort. Now when he approached her and she glanced at his hand reproachfully, she would find some minor thing on his person to complain about. There was always something to disparage him for. This time it was his shoes. But far worse than that was in the gloom of their bedchamber where her skin would tighten to his touch as if some long-legged spider was crawling over her. He needed her intimacy but would not take it unless it was offered freely. How many nights had he stood by the bedroom window gazing out to sea wishing for the confines of his cot? At least there he did not suffer the ignominy of rejection. The fact that time was dulling his own human desires worried him.
On occasions, he had thought to satisfy her by having the unsightly remnants of his hand surgically removed and the cuff of his dress coat stitched up by his tailor. Now, as the boat entered the confines of Portsmouth Harbour, he was thankful he had not done so.
The array of fighting ships made his spirits soar, and as the launch drifted towards The Hard, the smell of tar and turpentine was succour to his senses. He visualised the guns breeched behind the closed gunports of a majestic 100-gun first-rate and for a moment dared wonder if it might be waiting for him.
Tomorrow -- London, he thought. And the following day? He would know the answer to that question soon enough.
When the boat ground to a halt on The Hard, Captain Quintrell stepped ashore followed by his steward. After shaking the water from the hem of his boat cloak, he raked his finger through his hair, replaced his hat and thought about his disfigured hand.
A claw? A talon? A spur? He considered the connotations of his wife's words. The eagle's talon was a perfectly formed weapon for snatching prey. The fighting cock's spur -- the ultimate killing device. Both birds were bold and fearless. Both were supremely equipped. One a predator; the other a born fighter.
As they neared the entrance to The George, a young lieutenant stepped aside and saluted. Oliver acknowledged the gesture touching his bare finger to his hat.
No one had seen him casting his black glove into the sea. And no one would see him wearing it again.