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DUDLEY POPE

Ramage’s Mutiny

(book 8 in Ramage series)

Author's Note

 With one exception, all the places mentioned in this story exist. The traveller will, however, look in vain for Santa Cruz on the Spanish Main. The student of naval history will be reminded of the tragedy of the Hermione . . .

 D. P. Yacht Ramage English Harbour Antigua

To my cousin Dorothy Pope with love

CHAPTER ONE

 The little dockyard at English Harbour was already bustling, although the sun was only just lifting over the rounded hills to the east. In the West Indies the day began at dawn so that men could do as much heavy work as possible before the sun began to scorch the energy from their bodies.

 Ramage eased himself into the rattan chair on the balcony of the Commander-in-Chief's house, glancing down warily as protesting creaks warned that termites were busily and silently chewing their way through the legs to convert the springy wood into little piles of brown powder.

 As he relaxed to wait for the Admiral he guessed that today Captain Ramage was far from popular with the dockyard staff. They were all well paid and provided with comfortable houses, and normally enjoyed a quiet life interrupted only twice or three times a year when a frigate came in for a self-refit, using her own seamen to do the work and relying on the dockyard staff for little more than interference.

 Now, however, the master shipwright, master attendant, storekeeper and bosun suddenly found themselves responsible for two former French frigates, seven merchantmen and a schooner, all brought into Antigua as Captain Ramage's prizes.

 They had orders from the Admiral to help commission one of the frigates within seven days, while the other - which needed careening for repairs to her bottom - had to be ready within three weeks because she was to escort the merchant ships to England. Not only that, but the Admiral was here to make sure the work was completed on time.

 Although the Admiral was harrying the dockyard staff without mercy, Ramage had little sympathy for them. They had settled into a way of life where rum was an important part of the day's ritual. While some heathens stopped work at sunrise and sunset and knelt facing the east to say prayers, these dockyard fellows rarely started work but frequently interrupted their leisure to reach for a bottle and top up their glasses.

 Ramage had little doubt that a sudden inventory of the dockyard would reveal that they, in combination with the storekeeper, were running a prosperous but illicit business turning the King's stores into ready money, selling rope, sail canvas and paint to merchant ships calling at St John's, the main harbour on the north-western side of Antigua.

 Few masters worried about breaking the law and having rope on board that had the "King's Yarn" in it, a coloured thread that showed it had been laid up in one of the Navy's ropewalks and issued only to Navy ships. Most of the rigging in a merchant ship took a coat of Stockholm tar to help preserve it, and that hid the "King's Yarn".

 There was corruption in every dockyard and English Harbour was probably no worse than the rest. Because it was small, however, the flaws were more obvious. It comprised only a few stone buildings with grey slate roofs and reminded Ramage of a fifteen-horse stable on the fringe of Newmarket Heath. But what it lacked in size and honesty it made up for in sheer beauty.

 It was built at the inner end of a narrow channel which twisted its way like a fjord between ridges of steep hills. The entrance was hard to find and most captains coming in for the first time were thankful for the fortifications on each side, Fort Barclay and the Horseshoe Battery, because the channel did a sharp turn and from seaward there was no hint that ten ships of the line and half a dozen frigates could be safely moored inside, sheltered by the hills from the brisk Trade winds and with cables from their sterns secured to permanent anchors dug in along the beach.

 Ramage saw smoke across the channel, beyond the careening wharf, and a few minutes later smelled the sharp tang of hot pitch as seamen stoked up the fire under one of the big cast-iron pitch kettles standing waist-high on a small point, well clear of ships and buildings in case they became overheated and burst into flames. Nearby one of the French frigates, La Comete, was already hove-down at the Carenage Wharf, lying almost on her side like a stranded whale, with several sheets of copper sheathing missing along the rounded turn of the bilge and showing black stripes where carpenters and their mates were perched on a small raft, busy removing damaged planking.

 Ramage reflected that barely two weeks ago off Martinique that frigate was doing her best to sink the Juno frigate, which he then commanded. Now she was a prize and instead of being dead or a prisoner he was sitting on the balcony of the Commander-in-Chief's house waiting for orders. These would concern the second French frigate, now anchored farther up the channel in Freeman's Bay. She was the Surcouf, which he had cut out of Fort Royal, and which would be his new command as soon as all the paperwork was completed; one of the fastest and most heavily armed frigates in the Caribbean, and certainly the loveliest: the French had a knack of building graceful ships.

 But sitting here now, enjoying the first half an hour's peace and quiet since then, he felt chilled. He had taken terrible risks with his ship and his men, gambling with a recklessness that now appalled him. He had been lucky - the prizes were proof of that - but he had risked lives with less concern than some pallid gambler at Buck's watched a rolling dice with a hundred guineas, at stake. Had there been an alternative? Yes, if he cared for his men he would not have risked cutting out the Surcouf. Vet those same men would have marked him down as a coward if he had left her alone. Was success a justification?

 As he considered the grim contradictions he watched two boats pulling away from the Surcouf. They were laden with casks and bound for Tank Bay at the head of the channel, where there was a fresh-water spring. The frigate's sails were hanging down like enormous creased curtains: old Southwick, her new Master, was seizing the opportunity of airing them before the wind came up, part of the everlasting fight against the mildew that needed only a day or two of hot and humid weather to speckle the cloth with black mould and rot the stitching, however much the thread was waxed.

 A whiff of mildew as he moved slightly told him that his steward had not aired the coat he was wearing, but it was pleasant sitting here, breeches newly pressed, silk stockings uncreased, shoes shining, sword scabbard polished . . . One thing he missed afloat was sitting comfortably in the fresh air: one was always standing or pacing up and down like an animal in a cage.

 The sun was rising quickly now and bringing colour to hills which had been dark with shadow, but all its early pinkness could not disguise the fact that no rain had fallen on Antigua for several weeks. The earth which Nature had spread thinly on the hills was now arid, streaked with brown scars where the coarse grass had withered and grey where jagged rocks jutted out like enormous teeth. This was the time of day, for perhaps five minutes, that always reminded Ramage of a summer sunrise tinting the heather in the Scottish Highlands.

 As the sun climbed higher the colours changed, growing harsher. Soon one would notice only the vivid blue of the sky, the hard brown of the hills and the dark green of the mangroves growing in a thick band along the water's edge, the thin red roots twisting like predatory claws. Now the light and shadow caught the cacti scattered over the hills like outrageous artichokes and, every ten yards or so, he could see the single trunk of a century plant sprouting ten or twelve feet high, the yellow blossoms now withering, golden foxgloves past their prime.

 Ramage's eye caught the flash of red on Fort Barclay as a sentry turned in the sunlight beside the small stone magazine built on the inland side of the battlements. Now he could see the breeches of the guns gleaming black as the sun lifted the shadows. Twenty-six guns, with a dozen more in the Horseshoe Battery on the other side of the entrance. Ramage wondered if any of them had ever fired against an enemy. It would be a brave Frenchman who tried to force his way in, because there was also the masked battery just at the back of the beach facing the entrance, twenty more guns concealed by sand dunes and shaded by palm trees, poised like a cat waiting in front of a mouse hole in the wainscoting.

     

 

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