The Flying Squadron

Free The Flying Squadron by Richard Woodman

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Authors: Richard Woodman
heads there was the sound of shattering glass and a thin cheer went up from the marines still at their target practice.
    * See
In Distant Waters
.

CHAPTER 4
August 1811

The Paineite
    The last of the daylight faded in the west; ahead the sky seemed pallid with foreboding, Drinkwater thought, drawing his cloak the tighter around him and shifting his attention to the upper yards. There would be a strengthening of the wind before morning.
    â€˜Very well, Mr Gordon. You may shorten down. Clew up the main course and let us have the t’garn’s off her!’
    â€˜Main clew garnets, there! Look lively! Stand by to raise main tacks and sheets!’
    A bank of clouds gathered darkly against the vanishing day. The twilight of sunset was always the most poignant hour of the seaman’s day and, just as the small hours of the middle watch endowed trivial matters with a terrible gravity, this crepuscular hour invested thoughts with sombre shadows.
    What was it, Drinkwater thought, that so troubled him? Did this daily marking of time punctuate the passage of his life? Or was it a gale he feared, rolling towards them from the vicinity of Cape Hatteras, the disaffected mood of his officers, or the poor quality of his crew? Once he would have striven with every fibre of his being to lick them into shape; this evening he felt the task beyond him. He was tired, too old for this young man’s game. He should not have come back to sea, but quietly farmed his hundred acres, visited the Woodbridge horse fair and sought a pocket borough.
    Damn it, he was not old! He could ascend the riggingwith the agility of the topmen now running up to douse the flogging topgallants as they thundered in their buntlines. There were men up there far older than himself!
    No, he was disturbed by the vague shadow of a new war, for he sensed it as inevitable as much as it was incomprehensible. No matter the
pros
and
contras
of diplomacy adduced by Vansittart; no matter the crude claims and counter-claims advanced by his fire-brand officers, the fact of a war between the United States and Great Britain being in the interests of neither country was obvious. Only Napoleon Bonaparte could profit. Much might be laid at the door of
his
agents in fomenting the suspicion existing between London and Washington.
    Despite these considerations, it piqued him to think he had been placed back in command of
Patrician
precisely because he was ageing. The Ministry wanted no hothead frigate captain with only a score of summers to his credit hanging off the Virginia capes, landing a diplomatic messenger on the one hand and impressing American seamen from American ships on the other. He ought to be flattered, he thought, an ironic and private smile twitching the corners of his mouth. He detested the new breed of sea-officer nurtured on victory and assumptions of invincibility. They had never tasted the bitterness of bloody defeat any more than many of them had participated in a victorious action. This current presumption of superiority was a dangerous delusion, but he had heard it expressed enough while he had been ashore in Plymouth. Thank heaven his own officers seemed relatively free of it.
    Shortened down, the frigate rode easier, still standing doggedly to windward. Eight bells struck as the watch changed, and in the gathering darkness Drinkwater saw Gordon hand over to Frey. He caught the simultaneous glance of both their heads and the faint blur of their faces as they looked in his direction. He remembered so well the compound of fear and respect he had felt for most of his own commanders, all of them men with feet of clay; old Hope of the
Cyclops
, Griffiths of the
Kestrel
and the
Hellebore
.
    Christ, he was morbid! Was this an onset of the blue devils? It was time to go below. Vansittart had sensiblytaken to his cot the moment the weather livened up, now he would do the same. The gale would arrive by dawn, time enough to worry then. For the nonce he could drown

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