Authors: Alexander Kent
Selected Historical Fiction Published by McBooks Press
The Complete Midshipman Bolitho
Stand Into Danger
In Gallant Company
Sloop of War
To Glory We Steer
Command a King's Ship
Passage to Mutiny
With All Despatch
Form Line of Battle!
Enemy in Sight!
The Flag Captain
The Inshore Squadron
A Tradition of Victory
Success to the Brave
Honour This Day
The Only Victor
Beyond the Reef
The Darkening Sea
For My Country's Freedom
Cross of St George
Sword of Honour
Second to None
Man of War
Halfhyde at the Bight of Benin
Halfhyde and the Guns of Arrest
Halfhyde to the Narrows
Halfhyde for the Queen
Halfhyde Ordered South
Halfhyde on Zanatu
Too Few for Drums
Seven Men of Gascony
The Only Life That Mattered
The French Admiral
The Gun Ketch
What Lies Buried
A Fine Boy for Killing
The Wicked Trade
The Spithead Nymph
Ramage & The Drumbeat
Ramage & The Freebooters
Governor Ramage R.N.
Ramage & The Guillotine
Ramage & The Rebels
The Ramage Touch
Ramage & The Renegades
Ramage at Trafalgar
Ramage & The Saracens
Ramage & The Dido
Â Â Â The Naval Officer
Mr Midshipman Easy
Â Â Â The Merchant Service
Â Â Â The Dog Fiend
Victors and Lords
The Sepoy Mutiny
Massacre at Cawnpore
The Cannons of Lucknow
The Heroic Garrison
The Valiant Sailors
The Brave Captains
Hazard of Huntress
Hazard in Circassia
Victory at Sebastopol
Guns to the Far East
Escape from Hell
Sand of the Arena
A Sailor of Austria
The Emperor's Coloured Coat
The Two-Headed Eagle
Storm Force to Narvik
Last Lift from Crete
All the Drowning Seas
A Share of Honour
The Torch Bearers
Devil to Pay
Touch and Go
So Near So Far
The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower
The Eighteenth Captain
Between Two Fires
Badge of Glory
First to Land
Dust on the Sea
Twelve Seconds to Live
The White Guns
A Prayer for the Ship
The Devil's Own Luck
The Dying Trade
A Hanging Matter
An Element of Chance
The Scent of Betrayal
A Game of Bones
On a Making Tide
Tested by Fate
Breaking the Line
McBooks Press, Inc.
Published by McBooks Press
by Highseas Authors Ltd.
First published in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann Ltd.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or any
portion thereof in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
without the written permission of the publisher. Requests for such
permissions should be addressed to McBooks Press, Inc.,
ID Booth Building, 520 North Meadow St., Ithaca, NY 14850.
Cover painting by Geoffrey Huband.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Honour this day / by Alexander Kent.
p. cm. â (Richard Bolitho novels ;
ISBN 0-935526-73-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Great BritainâHistory, Navalâ
2. Bolitho, Richard (Fictitious character)âFiction. I. Title
PR6061.E63 H66 2000
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Printed in the United States of America
9 8 7
Mourn, England, mourn and complain
For the brave Lord Nelson's men
Who died upon that day
All on the main . . .
, in fact the whole island of Antigua, seemed to crouch motionless as if pinned down by the noon sun. The air was humid and oppressively hot, so that the many vessels scattered at anchor were blurred in heavy haze, like reflections in a steamy looking-glass.
This October in
was only days old, the middle of the hurricane season, and one of the worst on record. Several ships had been lost at sea, or driven ashore when they had been caught in some dangerous channel.
English Harbour was the important, some said vital, headquarters for the fleet which served the Caribbean and to the full extent of the Leeward and Windward Islands. Here was a fine anchorage, a dockyard where even the most serious damage and refitting could be carried out. But peace or war, the sea and the weather were constant enemies, and whereas almost every foreign flag was assumed to be hostile, the dangers of these waters were never taken for granted.
English Harbour was some twelve miles from the capital, St John's, and so the social life in and around the dockyard was limited. On a flagged terrace of one of the better houses flanking the hillside behind the harbour, a group of people, mostly officials and their ladies, stood wilting in the unmoving air watching the approach of a man-of-war. It seemed to have taken an eternity for the newcomer to gain substance and shape through the shimmering haze, but now she stood, bows-on to the land, her sails all but flat against her stays and yards.
Ships-of-war were too commonplace for mention. After years of conflict with France and her allies, such sights were part of these people's daily lives.
This one was a ship of the line, a two-decker, her rounded black and buff hull making a sharp contrast with the milky water and the sky which seemed without colour in the unwavering heat. The sun stood directly above Monk's Hill and was encircled with silver; somewhere out at sea there would be another storm very soon. This ship was different in one respect from other comings and goings. News had been brought by a guardboat that she was from England. To those watching her painstaking approach, just the name of England created so many images. Like a letter from home, a description from some passing sailor. Uncertain weather, shortages, and a daily fear of a French invasion across the Channel. As varied as the land itself, from lush countryside to city squalor. There was hardly a man or woman watching the two-decker who would not have traded Antigua for a mere glimpse of England.
One woman stood apart from the others, her body quite still, except for her hand, which used a fan with economical care to revive the heavy air.
She had tired long ago of the desultory conversation of the people she had come to know and recognise out of necessity. Some of their voices were already slurred with overheated wine, and they had not even sat down to eat as yet.
She turned to conceal her discomfort as she plucked the ivory gown away from her skin. And all the while she watched the ship.
The vessel could have been quite motionless but for a tiny feather of white foam beneath her thrusting, gilded figurehead. Two longboats were leading her inshore, one on either bow; she could not see if they were attached to their mother ship by line or not. They too were barely moving, and only the graceful rise and fall of their oars, pale like wings, gave a hint of effort and purpose.
The woman knew a great deal about ships; she had travelled many hundreds of leagues by sea, and had an eye for their complex detail. A voice from the past seemed to linger in her mind, which had described a ship as man's most beautiful creation. She could hear him add,
and as demanding as any woman.
Someone behind her remarked, “Another round of official visits, I suppose?” No one answered. It was too hot even for speculation. Feet clattered on stone steps and she heard the same voice say, “Let me know when you get any more news.”
The servant scurried away while his master opened a scrawled message from somebody in the dockyard.
seventy-four. Captain Haven.”
The woman watched the ship but her mind was drawn to the name. Why should it startle her in some way?
Another voice murmured, “Good God, Aubrey, I thought she was a hulk. Plymouth, wasn't it?”
Glasses clinked, but the woman did not move. Captain Haven? The name meant nothing.
She saw the guardboat pulling wearily towards the tall two-decker. She loved to watch incoming ships, to see the activity on deck, the outwardly confused preparations until a great anchor splashed down. These sailors would be watching the island, many for the first time. A far cry from the ports and villages of England.
The voice commented, “Yes, she was. But with this war spreading every day, and our people in Whitehall as unprepared as ever, I suspect that even the wrecks along our coastline will be drummed into service.”
A thicker tone said, “I remember her now. Fought and took a damned great three-decker single-handed. No wonder the poor old girl was laid up after that, eh, what?”
She watched, hardly daring to blink as the two-decker's shape lengthened, her sails being brailed up while she swung so slowly into whatever breeze she could discover.
“She's no private ship, Aubrey.” Interest had moved the man to the balustrade. “God, she wears an admiral's flag.”
Admiral,” corrected his host. “Very interesting. She's apparently under the flag of Sir Richard Bolitho, Vice-Admiral of the Red.”
The anchor threw up a column of spray as it fell from the cathead. The woman flattened one hand on the balustrade until the heat of the stone steadied her.
Her husband must have seen her move.
“What is it? Do you know him? A true hero, if half what I've read can be believed.”
She gripped the fan more tightly and pressed it to her breast.
So that was how it would be.
He was here in Antigua. After all this time, after all he had endured.
No wonder she had remembered the ship's name. He had often spoken so affectionately of his old
One of the first ships he had ever commanded as a captain.
She was surprised at her sudden emotion, more so at her ability to conceal it.
“I met him. Years ago.”
“Another glass of wine, gentlemen?”
She relaxed, muscle by muscle, aware of the dampness of her gown, of her body within it.
Even as she thought about it she cursed herself for her stupidity. It could not be like that again.
She turned her back on the ship and smiled at the others. But even the smile was a lie.
Richard Bolitho stood uncertainly in the centre of the great stern cabin, his head cocked to the sudden thud of bare feet across the poop. All the familiar sounds crowded into the cabin, the muffled chorus of commands, the responding squeal of blocks as the yards were braced round. And yet there was hardly any movement. Like a phantom ship. Only the tall, shimmering bars of gold sunlight which moved along one side of the cabin gave any real hint that
was swinging slowly into the offshore wind.
He watched as the land edged in a green panorama across the first half of the stern windows.
Even the name was like a stab in the heart, a reawakening of so many memories, so many faces and voices.
It was here in English Harbour where, as a newly appointed commander, he had been given his very first command, the small, lithe sloop-of-war,
A different kind of vessel, but then the war with the rebellious Americans had been different also. How long ago it all seemed. Ships and faces, pain and elation.
He thought of the passage here from England. You could not ask for a faster oneâthirty days, with the old
responding like a thoroughbred. They had stayed in company with a convoy of merchantmen, several of which had been packed with soldiers, reinforcements or replacements for the chain of English garrisons throughout the Caribbean. More likely the latter, he thought grimly. Soldiers were known to die like flies out here from one fever or another without ever hearing the crack of a French musket.
Bolitho walked slowly to the stern windows, shading his eyes against the misty glare. He was again aware of his own resentment, his reluctance at being here, knowing the situation would require all the diplomacy and pomp he was not in the mood to offer. It had already begun with the regular crash of salutes, gun for gun with the nearest shore battery, above which the Union Flag did not even ripple in the humid air.
He saw the guardboat riding above her own reflection, her oars stilled as the officer in charge waited for the two-decker to anchor.
Without being up there on the poop or quarterdeck Bolitho could visualise it all, the men at braces and halliards, others strung out along the great yards ready to fist and furl the sails neatly into place, so that from the land it would look as if every stitch of canvas had vanished to the touch of a single hand.
To a sailor it was always a dream. A new adventure.
Bolitho glanced at the dress coat which hung across a chair-back, ready for the call to commence his act. When he had been given command of
all those years ago he would never have believed it possible. Death by accident or in the cannon's mouth, disgrace, or the lack of opportunity to distinguish yourself or gain an admiral's favour, made any promotion a hard climb.
Now the coat was a reality, bearing its twin gold epaulettes with their paired silver stars. And yet . . . He reached up to brush the loose lock of hair from above his right eye. Like the scar running deep into his hairline where a cutlass had nearly ended his life, nothing changed, not even uncertainty.
He had believed that he might be able to grow into it, even though the step from command to flag rank was the greatest stride of all. Sir Richard Bolitho, Knight of the Bath, Vice-Admiral of the Red, and next to Nelson the youngest on the List. He gave a brief smile. The King had not even remembered his name when he had knighted him. Bolitho had also managed to accept that he was no longer involved with the day-to-day running of a ship,
ship which flew his flag. As a lieutenant he had often glanced aft at the captain's remote figure, and had felt awe, if not always respect. Then as a captain himself he had so often lain awake, fretting, as he listened to the wind and shipboard noises, restraining himself from dashing on deck when he thought the officer of the watch was not aware of the dangers around him. It was hard to delegate; but at least the ship had been his. To the ship's company of any man-of-war their captain was next only to God, and some said uncharitably that that was only due to seniority.
As a flag officer you had to stay aloof and direct the affairs of all your captains and commanders, place whatever forces you controlled where they would serve to the best effect. The power was greater, but so too was the responsibility. Few flag officers had ever allowed themselves to forget that Admiral Byng had been shot for cowardice by a firing party on the deck of his own flagship.
Perhaps he would have settled down to both his rank and unfamiliar title but for his personal life. He shied away from the thought and moved his fingers to his left eye. He massaged the lid and then stared hard at the drifting green bank of land. Sharp and clear again. But it would not last. The surgeon in London had warned him. He needed rest, more treatment, regular care. It would have meant remaining ashoreâworse than that, an appointment at the Admiralty.
So why had he asked, almost demanded, another appointment with the fleet? Anywhere, or so it had sounded at the time to the Lords of Admiralty.
Three of his superiors there had told him that he had more than earned a London appointment even before his last great victory. Yet when he had persisted, Bolitho had had the feeling they were equally glad he had declined their offers.
Fateâit must be that. He turned and looked deep into the great cabin. The low, white deckhead, the pale green leather of the chairs, the screen doors which led to the sleeping quarters or to the teeming world of the ship beyond, where a sentry guarded his privacy around the clock.