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Authors: Richard Woodman

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BOOK: Beneath the Aurora
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‘I don't know a
Captain
Clarke . . .' he began, and then Clarke himself was crowding into the room, with two ruffianly seamen in tarpaulins and a fantastically bewhiskered and cloaked officer whose moustaches curled extravagantly beneath a long nose. The quartet were soaked, their clothes running with water, which rapidly darkened the floor, mixing with the mud from their boots.

‘Oh, yes you do, Sparkman,' Clarke said grinning, ‘we need no introductions. But I have brought someone you haven't met yet.' Clarke drew off his low beaver and threw out an arm with a mock theatrical gesture. ‘Colonel . . .'

The grotesque apparition threw back his cloak with a flourish that showered Sparkman with water, to reveal a scarlet plastron fronting a white tunic laced with silver.

‘Colonel Bardolini, Captain,' the stranger announced in
good English, shrugging himself free of the restraining seamen and flicking his extended wrist at Clarke in dismissal. ‘I am come on an embassy to the English government. You are a naval officer, yes?'

‘Rummest cargo I ever lifted, Mr Sparkman,' Clarke put in, ignoring the foreign officer.

‘I daresay he paid you well,' retorted Sparkman, who had recovered something of his wits at this damp invasion. With wry amusement he observed that this Bardolini shared his own opinion of Clarke. ‘You were ever one to drive a hard bargain,' he added obliquely, referring to a past transaction over some bottles of genever.

‘This is different,' Clarke said darkly, ‘ 'e ain't French, 'e's Italian.'

‘I am Neapolitan,' said Bardolini, firing his sentences like shot. ‘I am in the service of King Joachim. I have papers for your government. I am a person of some importance.'

‘Are you now,' said Sparkman ‘and what proof . . . ?'

But Bardolini had anticipated resistance and whipped a heavily sealed paper from the ample cuff of his white leather gauntlet.

‘My passport.' He held the document out. ‘I have plenipotentiary powers,' he declared impressively.

Sparkman had only the vaguest understanding of the Neapolitan's claim, but a respect for the panoply of administrative office bade him be cautious. He slit the seal and with a crackle opened the paper.

‘Signor, please, these men . . .'

Sparkman looked up and nodded to the smuggler. ‘Tell your men to be off, Clarke,' he ordered and then, as the seamen retreated, clumping down the stairs, he asked, ‘Where did you pick this fellow up?'

‘At Flushing. I was told take a passenger . . .'

‘Told?' Sparkman asked. ‘By whom?' and, seeing Clarke's hesitation, ‘Come on, Clarke, you've no need to haver. If I read you aright, you've brought live cargo over before, have you not?'

‘A man has to feed his family, Sparkman, and these are hard times . . .'

‘Never mind your damned excuses. Who approached you?'

‘A man who has arranged this kind of business before.'

‘Very well. And what were you contracted to do with this fine gentleman?' Sparkman indicated the Neapolitan who was about to speak. ‘A moment, sir,' Sparkman cut him short. ‘Go on, Clarke.'

‘To deliver him to a government officer. When I heard you had been inspecting the coast . . .'

‘You were damned lucky I was about, then, and that it wasn't an Exciseman or a Riding Officer you bumped into.'

‘I wouldn't call it luck, Sparkman,' Clarke countered darkly, alluding to the intelligence system the so-called ‘free-traders' possessed.

‘I suppose you'd have left him to walk the Gunfleet Sands until the tide covered him?'

‘I usually do what I'm told in these circumstances, Sparkman . . .'

‘Aye, and avoid the gallows by it!'

‘I'd advise you to do the same, Sparkman. The gentlemen at Colchester are in my pocket too,' Clarke said, his grin sinister with implication.

‘Why you impertinent . . .' The reference to the army officers of the local garrison irritated him.

‘Are you a naval officer?' Bardolini snapped, breaking into the row fomenting between the two men, which it was clear he understood perfectly. ‘You have my passport. Please be good enough to read it.'

Sparkman turned his attention on the colonel. He was about to retort, but the gleam in Bardolini's eye persuaded him otherwise. He shrugged and looked at the paper the Neapolitan held out. It was in French and English, that much he could see, but his sight was poor and with only the light of the fire he could make out little more than the formula ‘allow to pass without let or hindrance, the bearer, Colonel Umberto Bardolini of the Neapolitan Service on a mission to the Court of St James's'. There was a string of legal mumbo-jumbo in which the words ‘plenipotentiary. . . . authorized to act on behalf of . . . is of my mind and fully conversant with my innermost thoughts', seemed sufficiently portentous to confirm Lieutenant Sparkman in the wisdom of his caution. At the bottom, above another seal, was a scrawl that may or may not have
spelled out the name ‘Joachim', but in fact used the Italian form ‘Giacomo'.

Sparkman looked up at the bristling moustaches. ‘Colonel, my apologies. Welcome to Great Britain.' He held out his hand, but Bardolini ignored it and bowed stiffly from the waist.

Sparkman was aware of Clarke grinning diabolically in the firelight at this slight.

‘Who are you?' Bardolini asked peremptorily and for the third time.

‘Shall I get you some vittals, Lieutenant Sparkman?' put in the landlord who had remained silent until a commercial opportunity offered.

‘No, damn you,' Sparkman snapped, ‘tell your boy I want my horse again, and get me another for this fellow to ride.' He handed the passport back to Bardolini. ‘I am Lieutenant Sparkman of His Britannic Majesty's Royal Navy, Colonel.' Then he sat and pulled on his boots.

‘What are you going to do with him?' asked Clarke.

‘I shan't be taking any chances, God rot you,' said Sparkman, standing and stamping his feet into the boots, then casting about the room for his belongings, muttering about the lack of candles.

‘D'you wish for a candle, sir?' enquired the landlord. ‘It will take but a moment . . .'

‘I want a quiet evening before the fire,' Sparkman muttered through clenched teeth.

‘Aye, sir, 'tis a bad night, and . . .'

‘Be so good as to stand aside!' Sparkman exploded.

‘What about payment for the room?'

Bardolini shuffled round as Sparkman seized his damp cloak from the bed and drew it about his shoulders. The wet collar rasped against his neck, reminding him of the weather outside and the comfort he was forsaking. He threw the landlord a handful of silver.

‘You will take me to see the General Officer commanding at Colchester?' the Neapolitan asked, obviously well-informed.

‘No, sir, 'tis too far. I will take you to Harwich for tonight. Tomorrow we will see about Colchester.' Sparkman turned
on Clarke who barred his exit. ‘You must have had a bad passage, Clarke.'

Clarke grinned and jerked his head at Bardolini, at the same time holding out his hand and preventing anyone from leaving the room. ‘He certainly did.'

With an extravagant sigh, Bardolini drew a purse from his belt. Sparkman heard the chink of coin as he passed it to the smuggler.

‘I wish you good-night, gentlemen,' said Clarke, standing aside and bowing with an ironic exaggeration.

Sparkman threw the wet satchel over his shoulder and picked up a pair of pistol holsters. ‘Be so kind as to bring my baggage, landlord,' he ordered, nodding at his portmanteau, then he stepped forward, through the slime his visitors had left by the door.

As he passed, Clarke muttered sarcastically, ‘I took his pistols while he was vomiting over the rail. He won't give you too much trouble.'

‘I am much obliged to you, Clarke,' Sparkman retorted with equal incivility.

‘
Captain
Clarke, Mr Sparkman.'

‘Damn you for an insolent dog, Clarke . . .'

Clarke laughed and held up the jingling purse under Sparkman's nose. ‘There's more than you make in a year in here, Sparkman . . .'

‘God help England when money purchases rank, Clarke! You're a dog and always will be a dog, and no amount of gold, no, nor putting your betters in your pocket, can make you a gentleman! Come, Colonel.'

‘What pretty notions you do have, Sparkman,' Clarke called after them, laughing as they clattered down the stairs.

Sparkman had to put his shoulder to the outer door as a gust of wind eddied round the yard. Rain lashed him in the twilight as Bardolini emerged, attempting to put a crazy, square-topped shako on to his head. Then Sparkman was struggling with his reluctant horse and taking the reins from a wretched little stable-boy. Satchel, portmanteau and saddle-bags were finally settled on the fractious animal and then Sparkman hoisted himself aloft.

Bardolini was already mounted, smoothing his curvetting
horse's neck with a gloved and practised hand. The sight irritated Sparkman; but for this effete Italian he might, at that moment, be tucking into a beef pie.

‘Come on, then, damn you!' he roared and put spurs to his tired horse, which jerked him forward into the rain and wind.

CHAPTER 1
September 1813

A Lucky Chance

Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater read the paragraph for the fourth time, aware that he had not understood a word of it. The handwriting was crabbed, the spelling idiosyncratic and the ink smudged. He began again. The lines forming the words seemed to uncoil from the paper into a thin trail of smoke. He was aware he had fallen asleep, his mind dulled with a torpor he found difficult to shake off.

‘God's bones,' he muttered, tossing the paper on to the pile which covered the green baize on the desk-top and standing up with such violence than his chair overturned and, for a moment, he had to clutch at the desk to stop himself from falling.

The dizziness passed, but left his brow clammy with sweat. He ran a forefinger round his neck, tugging at the constriction of his stock, swearing beneath his breath with forceful eloquence. He went to the window and leaned his head upon the cool glass. The sash vibrated slightly to the gale blowing outside, and rain fell upon the glass panes with a patter which occasionally grew to a vicious tattoo in the gusts. It was almost dark and he told himself it was the dusk which had brought on his tiredness, nothing more.

He turned and, leaning against the shutter, stared back into the room. It was small, containing the baize-covered desk, his chair and a wicker basket which stood on a square of carpet to keep his feet from the draught that blew between the wide deal floorboards. The window was flanked on one side by a tall
cabinet whose glazed doors covered shelves of guard books, on the other by a low chest whose upper surface was a plane table. It had a trough for pencil and dividers, beneath which a series of shallow drawers contained several folios of charts. On its top was a long wooden box containing a single deep and narrow drawer.

The only other article of furniture in the room was a small, rickety, half-moon table set against the wall beside the door. Upon it were a pair of decanters, a biscuit barrel and four glasses. One contained a residual teaspoonful of maderia.

On the wall opposite the window, above the grate and mantelpiece, hung a gilt-framed canvas depicting a moonlit frigate action. It had been commissioned by Drinkwater and painted by the ageing Nicholas Pocock, whose house in Great George Street was hard by Storey's Gate into St James's Park. The painting showed the frigate
Patrician
overhauling and engaging the French National frigate
Sybille
and Drinkwater had described the canvas to his wife Elizabeth as ‘a last vanity, m'dear. I shan't fight again, now that I've swallowed the anchor.'

The recollection made him turn to the window again, and stare down into the darkening street. Despite the weather, Whitehall was full of the evening's traffic: a foot patrol of guardsmen, a pair of doxies in a doorway cozening the grenadiers, whose bearskins lost their military air in the rain, a dog pissing against a porter's rest, and a handful of pathetic loiterers huddling out of the rain in the sparse and inadequate clothing of the indigent. Carriages came and went across his field of view, but he saw none of this. It depressed him; after the broad sweep of the distant horizon seen from the pristine standpoint of a frigate's quarterdeck, the horse turds and grime of Whitehall were a mockery.

He turned and, as abruptly as he had risen, closed the shutters against the night. Then he righted his capsized Windsor chair and sat in it. Picking up the paper he twisted round, held it to the flickering firelight and began to read out loud, as if by annunciating the ill-written words he would keep himself awake enough to assimilate their content.

‘Sir, further to my communications of December last and May of this year, in which there was little of an unusual nature
to report, it is now common knowledge here . . .' Drinkwater had forgotten the origin of the paper and looked at the heading. ‘Ah, yes,' he murmured, ‘from Helgoland . . . last month, no, July . . .'

BOOK: Beneath the Aurora
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