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Authors: Richard Woodman

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He had fondly supposed that he would see something of his wife, but Elizabeth and the children were almost a hundred
miles away, in Suffolk, while he vegetated in the capital, choking on smoke and falling victim to the blue devils and every quinsy and ague coughed over him by London's denizens! Moira had implied he might mastermind a
coup
, insisting Dungarth knew him capable of executing some brilliant feat. But while Drinkwater had pored in fascination over the papers pasted in the guard books, prompted by a natural curiosity concerning the fate of Madame Santhonax, whose husband Drinkwater had killed in action, he had come to realize all such opportunities seemed to reside firmly in the past, and the distant past at that.
*

His present duties seemed to entail nothing more than reading endless reports and dispatches, many of no apparent meaning, still less of significance, until he dozed over them, half asleep with inertia.

‘God's bones,' he had snapped at Templeton one morning, ‘what am I to make of this catalogue of stupefying facts? If they conceal some great truth then it passes over my head.'

‘Patience, sir,' Templeton had soothed, ‘gold is never found in great quantities.'

‘Damn you for your philosophical cant, Templeton! Did Lord Dungarth never venture abroad, eh? Send himself on some mission to rouse his blood?'

‘Yes, sir, indeed he did, and lost a leg if you recall, when his carriage was mined by Bonaparte's police.'

‘You are altogether too
reasonable
for your own good, Templeton. If you were on my quarterdeck I should mast-head you for your impudence.'

‘You are not on your quarterdeck, Captain Drinkwater,' Templeton had replied coolly, with that fastidious detachment which could either annoy or amuse Drinkwater.

‘More's the damned pity,' Drinkwater had flung back, irritated on this occasion and aware that here, in the Admiralty, he was bereft of the trappings of pomp he had become so used to. It reduced the bottle-green coat to the uniform of a kind of servitude and his clipped speech to a pompous mannerism acquired at sea through the isolation of command. Neither consideration brought him much comfort, for the one
reminded him of what he had relinquished, the other of what he had become.

Nevertheless, Drinkwater mused, leaning back in his chair and staring into the fire's dying embers, it seemed enough for Templeton methodically to unscramble the reports of spies while Drinkwater himself ached for something useful to do, instead of this tedious seeking of windmills to tilt at.

He was fast asleep when Templeton knocked on the door and he woke with a start as the clerk urgently shook his shoulder. Templeton's thin visage hung over him like a spectre.

‘Captain Drinkwater, sir, wake up!'

‘What the devil . . . ?' Drinkwater's heart pounded with alarm, for there was something wild in Templeton's eye.

‘I have just received a message from Harwich, sir. Sent up post-haste by a Lieutenant Sparkman.'

‘Who the devil is he?' Drinkwater asked testily, his eye catching sight of a folded paper in Templeton's hand.

‘An Inspector of Fencibles . . .'

‘Well?'

‘He is holding a prisoner there, sir, a man claiming to be a colonel in the service of the King of Naples.'

‘The King of Naples? Marshal Murat?'

‘The same . . .'

‘Let me see, damn it!' Drinkwater shot out his hand, took the hurriedly offered note and read:

Sir, I have the Honour to Acquaint Their Lordships that I am just Arrived at Harwich and have in My Custody a Man just lately Arrived upon the Coast and claiming to be a Colonel Bardolini, in the Service of the King of Naples and Invested with Special Powers. I have Lodged him in the Redoubt here and Await your Instructions at the Three Cups Inn
.

Sparkman, Lieutenant and Inspector of Sea Fencibles

Drinkwater turned the letter over and read the superscription with a frown.

‘This is addressed to the Secretary . . .'

‘Mr Croker is at Downing Street, Captain Drinkwater, and Mr Barrow is paying his respects to Mr Murray, the publisher.'
A wry and rather mischievous expression crossed Templeton's face. ‘And it is getting rather late.' Templeton paused. ‘I was alone in the copy room when the messenger was brought in . . .' The clerk let the sentence hang unfinished between them.

‘A
coup de hasard
, is it, Mr Templeton?'

‘Better than the
coup de grâce
for the Department, sir.'

‘Perhaps.' Drinkwater paused. ‘What d'you think it means? I recollect it was Murat's men who approached Colonel . . . damn me, what was his name . . . ?'

‘Colonel Coffin, sir, he was commanding Ponza and received overtures from Naples to Lord William Bentinck at Palermo,' said Templeton, already moving across the room to the long wooden box on the table from which he pulled an equally long drawer. It contained a well-thumbed card index and Templeton's thin fingers manipulated the contents with practised ease. After a moment he drew out a small, white rectangle covered with his own meticulous script. Holding it up to the candles he read aloud: ‘Joachim Murat, born Lot 1767, trooper 1787, commissioned 1792, Italy, Egypt, assisted Bonaparte in his
coup d'état
, commanded Consular Guard, fought at Marengo and in operations against King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies . . .'

‘Whom he has now despoiled of half his kingdom,' put in Drinkwater, ‘and not in the manner of a fairy tale.'

‘No, indeed,' Templeton coughed and resumed the card's details. ‘Marshal of France 1804, occupied Vienna 1805, Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves 1808, Jena, Eylau, Madrid, King of Naples 1808. Commanded cavalry of Grande Armée in Russia, succeeded Bonaparte as C-in-C. Married to Caroline Bonaparte . . .' Templeton paused, continuing to read in silence for a moment. Then he looked up, smiling.

‘In addition to the communication opened with Coffin and Lord William, we have several references to him from captains of men-of-war off the Calabrian coast.'

Drinkwater knew that the card index, with its potted biographies, was but an index to the volumes of guard books, and the references to which Templeton referred were intelligence reports concerning Marshal Murat, husband of Caroline Bonaparte and puppet King of Naples.

‘I think we have an emissary of the Emperor's brother-in-law on our hands, sir.'

‘Then it is a
coup de main
, is it not, Templeton?' Drinkwater jested, but his clerk wanted none of the pun. ‘The question is, does he act on his own or Bonaparte's behalf?'

‘Captain Drinkwater,' Templeton said in an urgent whisper as if he feared the very walls would betray him, ‘if Mr Croker had received that letter he would pass it to the Foreign Secretary.'

‘What letter?' asked Drinkwater, letting the missive go. It fluttered from his hand, slid sideways into the draught drawn into the chimney, hovered a moment above the glowing coals, then began to sink, shrivelling, charring and then touching down in a little upsurge of yellow flame before it turned to black ash, with a curl of grey smoke, and subsided among the clinkers in the grate. Drinkwater looked up, expecting outrage at this high-handed action, but was disappointed to see Templeton's face bore a look of such inscrutability that it crossed Drinkwater's mind that the clerk was pleased.

‘I shall go to Harwich, Mr Templeton.'

‘Tonight, sir?'

‘Of course. Be so kind as to pass word for a chaise and let Williams know my portmanteau is to be made ready . . .'

‘At once, at once . . .'

Templeton scuttled from the room and Drinkwater had the impression that he was actually running along the corridor outside. ‘A rum fellow,' Drinkwater muttered, dismissively.

He rose from his chair, poured himself another glass of wine and took it to the window. He opened the shutters again. The moon had vanished and the night was black. Rain still drove on the panes, and the gusting wind rattled the sash incessantly.

‘What a deuced dreadful night to go a-travelling,' he muttered to himself, but the window reflected a lop-sided grin above the rim of the wine glass.

*
See
The Flying Squadron
.

*
See
Baltic Mission
.

CHAPTER 2
September 1813

A Secret from the South

Lieutenant Sparkman dozed over the mulled wine, one booted leg stretched out on the wooden settle. Curled at his feet lay a brindled mongrel cur of menacing size. Periodically it came to frantic life, a hind leg vigorously clawing at a hidden flea, before it subsided again.

Having discommoded himself of the Neapolitan officer, he had not had much sleep in the arms of the energetic Annie. He was no longer a young man and the excesses of the night dissuaded him from taking too much of an interest in his report. He felt as weary that morning in the empty tap-room of the Three Cups at Harwich as he had at the Red Lion at Kirby-le-Soken the previous evening. He looked up as the latch of the door lifted and Annie, smiling at him above her unlaced stays and white breasts, led a stranger into the room.

‘Tell your master that I want new horses in three hours and a dinner in two,' the stranger said, turning his back on Sparkman as he took off his tricorn and a heavy cloak and threw them on a wooden chair on the opposite side of the fireplace. The newcomer wore a suit of bottle-green which sat awkwardly on asymetrical shoulders down which fell his hair in an old-fashioned queue set off with a black ribbon.

‘New horses, sir, an' a dinner, aye, sir . . .' Annie bobbed and pouted at the newcomer and Sparkman felt a mean resentment at the intrusion, at the bossing of Annie Davis, at the little whore's attitude.

‘Put some more coal on the fire,' Sparkman commanded, ‘and get me a pipe and baccy while you're about it.'

Annie flashed him a quick, pleading look which spoke of obligations and priorities not purchased with his single florin.

‘A glass of black-strap, if you please,' said the stranger, reengaging Annie's attention, and she curtsied again, to Sparkman's intense irritation. But before he could add to the catalogue of Annie's chores, the man turned.

He was about fifty with a high forehead from which his grey-brown hair was drawn back severely. His face was lined and weatherbeaten, though a faint, pallid sword scar ran down his left cheek. His mouth, circumscribed by deep furrows, was expressive of contempt as he regarded the dishevelled Sparkman from stern grey eyes.

Sparkman's irritation withered under the stranger's scrutiny. He felt uncomfortably conscious of his dirty neck linen and the mud-stained boot outstretched on the settle seat. He lowered his eyes, raised the tankard to his lips. The fellow had no business with him and could go to the devil!

Drinkwater stared at the slovenly figure, noting the blue coat of naval undress uniform.

‘Lieutenant Sparkman?'

Sparkman coughed with surprise, spluttering into his mulled wine in an infuriating indignity which he disguised in anger. ‘And who the deuce wants to know?'

‘You are Lieutenant Sparkman, Inspector of Sea Fencibles, are you not?' Drinkwater persisted coolly, drawing a paper from his breast pocket and shaking it so that the heavy seal fell, and unfolded it for Sparkman to read.

‘I am Captain Nathaniel Drinkwater, from the Admiralty, Mr Sparkman. You wrote to their Lordships about a Colonel Bardolini.'

Sparkman's mouth fell open; he put his tankard down, wiped his hands upon his stained breeches and took Drinkwater's identification paper, looking at Drinkwater as he sat up straight.

‘I beg pardon, sir . . .' He read the pass and handed it back. ‘I beg pardon, sir, I had no idea . . . I wasn't expectin' . . .'

‘No matter, Mr Sparkman, no matter.' Captain Drinkwater took the paper, refolded it and tucked it inside his coat.
‘Where is this fellow Bardolini? In the Redoubt, I think you said.'

‘Yes, sir, I thought it best . . .'

Annie Davis came back into the room with a glass of black-strap on a tray. ‘Here you'm be, sir.'

‘Obliged.' Drinkwater swallowed hard. ‘No doubt you did think it for the best, Mr Sparkman, but I doubt Colonel Bardolini will be of so sanguine an opinion. Does he speak English?'

‘Yes, very well.'

‘Good. Where is this Redoubt?'

‘You passed it, sir, just before you came to the main gate . . .'

‘Ah yes, the glacis, I recollect it. Shall we go then?' Drinkwater tossed off the glass and swept up his cloak and hat. ‘A dinner in two hours, my girl, and no later; a hot meat pie will do very well.'

Apart from its flagstaff, the Redoubt was as well hidden from sight as from cannon shot, nestling below a glacis which rose fifty feet above the level of the country. This slope terminated on the edge of a vertical counterscarp, and the brick bulk of the circular fort rose on the far side of a wide ditch. This was crossed by a drawbridge which led directly to the rampart, which was pierced by embrasures each housing a huge, black 24-pounder. Under the iron arch with its empty sconce, which marked the inconspicuous gateway to this military wonder, they were challenged halfheartedly by a blue-coated artilleryman on sentry duty. He had spied them walking out through the town's main gate and he had summoned a lieutenant who hurried up to greet them. For the second time in an hour, Drinkwater produced his identification.

BOOK: Beneath the Aurora
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