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Authors: Richard Woodman

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‘No, quite, blockade is a confoundedly tedious business, I'm told.'
Barrow smiled. ‘Since you're too old for a frigate,' he added with a laugh, ‘it looks as if your Suffolk acres will have to serve you for a quarterdeck.'

Drinkwater ignored the mockery and changed the subject. ‘I have been away, Mr Barrow, and I desire you to communicate a matter of some importance to the Foreign Secretary directly.'

‘And what is that?' Barrow asked with unfeigned surprise.

‘I have, in my custody, a Colonel Bardolini of the household cavalry of King Joachim of Naples. The King, if that is what he is, wishes to secure a guarantee from His Britannic Majesty's government that, irrespective of the fate of the Emperor of the French, Joachim Napoleon will remain King of Naples.'

‘But King Ferdinand . . .'

‘I have explained
the ramifications attaching to the matter,' Drinkwater said wearily, drawing from his breast pocket Bardolini's diplomatic accreditation and laying it on the desk before Barrow. ‘Moreover, I am of the opinion that King Joachim is a reed awaiting the stronger breeze. Nevertheless, Bardolini has been invested with plenipotentiary powers and sent here on a mission to the Court of St James's.'

Barrow leaned forward and drew the document towards him. ‘Murat,' he murmured, reading the paper, ‘well, well.'

‘There is another matter, Mr Barrow,' Drinkwater began, but he was interrupted by a knock at the door.

‘Come,' Barrow called, without looking up from Bardolini's paper.

Templeton approached across the carpet and held out a sheet of paper. Drinkwater took it and stared at it. Templeton had written:
The Downs, The Nore, Ho'sley Bay, Yarmouth, The Humber, Tyne, Leith
, and under each the names of one or two ships.

‘What is that? What do you want, Templeton?' Barrow looked up, frowning at the intrusion.

‘My fault, Mr Barrow,' Drinkwater put in quickly, ‘I asked Templeton to bring me a list of ships in the ports of the east coast . . .'

‘What on earth for . . . ?'

‘Thank you, Templeton, kindly wait for me in my room.'

‘Very well, sir.' Reluctance was in every step of the clerk's retreat.

‘Captain, if you please, explain . . .'

‘Of course, Mr Barrow, of course. There is another matter arising out of this approach from Marshal Murat . . .'

‘I presume this other matter touches us . . . I mean their Lordships, rather than the Foreign Secretary?'

‘You are an astute man, Mr Barrow.'

Drinkwater explained, repeating Bardolini's revelation and adding the corroborative evidence from Herr Liepmann at Hamburg sent through the British-held island of Helgoland. When he had finished, Barrow was silent for a moment. ‘I recollect', he said gravely, ‘your report on the destruction of the American privateers, and the concomitant matters you raised.' Barrow frowned, deep in thought. ‘You are uniquely placed to understand the importance of this intelligence, are you not?'

‘Hence this paper, Mr Barrow.'

‘The paper?' Barrow frowned again, but this time with incomprehension.

‘I want two things, Mr Barrow . . .'

 . . . ?'

‘You give my office a brief stay of execution and you give me', he looked down at the paper Templeton had brought to where his thumb lay adjacent to the note
, ‘the frigate

‘But I . . .'

‘Come, come, I have been here long enough to know Lord Melville will put his name to anything you recommend, as will Mr Croker . . .'

Barrow grunted, fell silent, then said, ‘But is one frigate enough, Captain? You had a flying squadron at your disposal before.'

‘Another thing I have learned is that we have few enough ships to protect our own trade, Mr Barrow. How many can you spare me? The cutter
used to be at Lord Dungarth's disposal, but she has long since . . .'

‘No, no, you may have her, if you wish, as a tender or dispatch vessel.'

‘And I may write my own orders?'

‘You may
your own orders, Captain,' said Barrow smiling, ‘and you may retain Templeton to do it . . .'

‘I was thinking of taking him to sea.'

‘A capital idea.'

‘I think their Lordships might permit me the luxury of a secretary.'

‘I think they might be persuaded.' Relief at having the problem of Templeton so neatly resolved delighted Barrow.

Drinkwater rose. ‘What of Bardolini? He is safe enough with me for a few days and I shall want a week to make my preparations, but after that he will be an encumbrance.'

‘Give me a day or two, Captain Drinkwater, and I will let you know – by, say, Thursday?'

Drinkwater nodded. ‘What d'you think Castlereagh will do?'

‘I would imagine almost anything to string Murat along and prevent him giving his wholehearted support to Bonaparte.'

‘So we will send Bardolini back with a diplomatic humbug?'

‘It is not for me to say, but I would imagine so.'

‘Poor fellow.'

C'est la guerre, n'est-ce pas
? You may send him to Helgoland in the
. He may then be landed near Hamburg and rejoin his master at Dresden.'

Drinkwater nodded. ‘Very well. I shall hear from you by Thursday?'

‘Of course.'

Whether or not Barrow recalled their past disagreement, Drinkwater had forgotten it as he left the room.

Templeton was not in his room when Drinkwater returned to it, and he sat and contemplated the papers on his desk. A dozen dispatches and reports had come in in his absence, an unusual amount for two days and ironic in the light of the imminent demise of his office. The sheets were neatly minuted in Templeton's impeccable script and, where necessary, additional sheets of paper were pinned to the originals, decryptions of enciphered text.

He riffled through them. They were tediously routine: a deciphered message from a Chouan agent in Brittany recounting the numbers of French warships in Brest which would serve merely to corroborate the sightings of the blockading frigates off Ushant; a report from St Helier in the Channel Islands
about a small convoy which would have reached its destination by now; and a report from Exeter concerning the escape of a score of American prisoners-of-war from a working detail sent out from Dartmoor prison.

Templeton entered the room at that moment. ‘I'm sorry, sir, I . . .'

Drinkwater waved aside the man's apology. ‘No matter. How do we come to receive this? This is a matter for the civil authorities.' He indicated the report concerning the American prisoners.

‘They were seamen, sir, and therefore we were notified. We usually inform the Regulating Captains . . .'

‘And they try and pick them up for service in our own fleet, eh?'

‘I believe so, sir. They are more productive serving His Majesty at sea, rather than being detained at His Majesty's pleasure ashore!'

‘A vicious habit, Templeton, which don't make the life of a sea-officer at all comfortable, and a pretty extremity to be driven to.' Drinkwater pulled himself up short. Templeton was not to blame for such matters, though it would do him good to see something of life's realities. ‘Besides,' he added, ‘they were not idle when they escaped, they were building dry-stone walls.'

‘Yes, sir,' Templeton said resignedly, leaning forward and drawing a last letter to Drinkwater's attention. ‘There is a
post scriptum
to the affair.'

Drinkwater took the letter and read it. ‘So they melted into the countryside. Does the fact seem the least remarkable to you, Templeton? Wouldn't you have done the same?'

‘It is customary to have a few reports of sightings.'

Drinkwater dropped the letter. ‘Pass these to Mr Barrow's people. We have other work to do. Do you draft orders, in the usual form, to the officer commanding HMS
 . . .'

‘He is not on board, sir, having been lately called to Parliament . . .'

‘Then that is his damned bad luck, who is he?'

‘Captain Pardoe. He is the Member for Eyesham.'

‘Well, so much the better for Eyesham. An order for his replacement, my commission . . . where is

, sir? Er, she is a cutter . . .'

‘I know
she is, I want to know
she is.'

‘Laid up, I think,' said Templeton frowning, ‘at Chatham, I believe.'

‘Find out. Let me know. Now I shall write to my wife. We have less than a week before we leave London, Templeton.'

, sir?'

‘Yes. You are appointed my secretary.'

Templeton stared blankly at Drinkwater and opened his mouth to protest. It had gone dry and he found it difficult to speak, managing only a little gasp before Drinkwater's glare dissuaded him from the matter and he fled. To lose all hope of elevation and suffer the ignominy of virtual demotion was enough for one day, but to be a pressed man as well was more than flesh and blood could stand. Templeton reeled out into the corridor dashing the tears from his eyes.

He left behind a chuckling Drinkwater who drew a clean sheet of paper towards him, picked up his pen and flipped open the inkwell.

My Darling Wife
 . . . he began to write and, for a few moments, all thoughts of the war left him. As he finished the letter he looked up. It was almost dark and the unlit room allowed his eyes to focus on the deep blue of the cloudless evening sky. The first stars twinkled dimly, increasing in brilliance as he watched, marvelling.

He would soon see again not merely those four circumscribed rectangles, but the entire, majestic firmament.

It was almost a cruelty to bring Elizabeth to London for a mere three days, but two in the society of Bardolini, who insisted on continually badgering his host for news, was a trial to Drinkwater for whom the wait, with little to do beyond a brief daily attendance at the Admiralty, was tedious enough.

Difficulties began to crowd him within an hour of his wife's arrival. Bardolini insisted upon paying her elaborate court, depriving her husband of even the chilliest formality of a greeting, but then a more serious arrival in the shape of the young Captain Pardoe threatened to upset Drinkwater's humour still further.

‘I understand, sir, that it is largely upon your intervention
that I have been deprived of my command,' Pardoe had expostulated on the doorstep.

‘Whereas I understand the demands of party expect you in Westminster, sir, where, happily, you are,' Drinkwater replied coolly.

‘Damn it, sir, by what right do you . . . ?'

‘You are making a fool of yourself, Captain Pardoe, pray come inside . . .' Pardoe was admitted and confronted with the uniformed splendour of Colonel Bardolini. Introductions were effected to both the Neapolitan and Elizabeth, hushing Pardoe. At an opportune moment, Drinkwater was able to draw him aside and whisper, ‘Colonel Bardolini is an important diplomatic envoy. Your ship is wanted for a mission of some delicacy, such that an officer of my seniority must assume command. It was thought better all round by the ministry that you should take your seat, I believe you are warm in the government's cause, and I should take command.'

Drinkwater's dark dissimulation appeared to have a swiftly mollifying effect. ‘I see,' said Pardoe. ‘Of course, if that is the case, I am naturally happy to oblige.'

‘We knew you would be, Pardoe,' Drinkwater smiled, hoping Pardoe connected all the insinuations and believed
to be bound for the Mediterranean.

‘D'you care for some tea, Captain?' asked Elizabeth soothingly, and the awkward incident passed, dissolving into the inconsequential small-talk of the moment. Elizabeth delighted in talking to a man who seemed to be at the heart of affairs and Drinkwater unobtrusively observed the pleasure she took in the company of Pardoe and Bardolini.

When, at last, they were alone together in their bedroom and Elizabeth had unburdened herself of news of the farms and the well-being of family and tenantry, he asked, ‘Have you seen James Quilhampton recently?'

‘Yes. He was dandling his son on his knee,' Elizabeth said pointedly.

‘But was anxious for employment?'

‘He did not say.'

‘Bess, I . . .'

‘You said you would not be going to sea again, not that it
matters much since I think I would rather you were as sea than languishing in this gloomy place.'

‘I thought you liked this house?'

‘When it was Lord Dungarth's, I did; as your London establishment, I don't care for it at all.

‘Johnnie died in this room, didn't he?' His wife's familiar reference to the dead Dungarth discomfited Drinkwater. She had been as fond of him as he of her, and the difference between the sexes had led to an easing of the formalities that bound her husband. He changed the subject.

‘I have to go, Bess . . .'

‘I know, affairs of state,' she sighed, then resumed, ‘though I wonder what important matters demand the presence of so obscure an officer as my husband.'

‘Perhaps I am not so obscure,' he said, in a poor attempt to jest, or to boast.

‘Try persuading me otherwise, Nathaniel.'

‘There is Colonel Bardolini.'

‘He is pathetic and rather frightened.'

‘Frightened? Why do you say that?' Drinkwater asked with sudden interest.

Elizabeth shrugged. ‘I don't know; he just gives that impression.'

‘Well, he's safe enough here and, for the few days we have, you can look after him.'

‘Thank you, kind sir,' she said. ‘But you have changed the subject. I want to know more of this proposed voyage. I suppose you wish me to carry orders to James when I return in the same way that I carried your sea-kit up to London.'

BOOK: Beneath the Aurora
10.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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