Warning: Mature Adults only
PART I: ABUQUIR
"On the uproll - Fire!"
From his precarious perch in the rigging of the HMS Culloden, Patrick Harper of the Corps of Marines squeezed the trigger of his Sea Service Brown Bess and sent a lead ball hurtling towards his target, joined by the musket balls of a myriad of other marines likewise perched. Water sprang up around the empty salt-pork cask, and it bobbed among the waves, its equilibrium altered by the shots that struck it.
He had been at musket practice for two hours now, and the sun was setting. He was proficient now at loading while clutching the rigging with his feet, and could still manage his three aimed shots a minute. But he had come to a realization.
He didn't like heights. And he wasn't likely to learn to like them. Oh, he had no problem with looking down from the Barnesmore Gap on Donegal County, as long as there was solid earth under his feet. But he did not like rigging. He did not like the way it swayed over the ocean, he did not like how small the deck of the ship looked below him. He did not like the way his feet had fumbled for the rigging lines as he had ascended for the first time, until a chuckling seaman had guided them. He did not like the way his feet still fumbled for footholds now.
Weeks ago, he had seen Captain Troubridge ascend the mainmast to the first or even the second foremast, (telescope in hand!) to get a better look at the surroundings. Just watching him had made Harper's stomach churn. How he envied Finnigan's monkeylike scamper up the rigging lines and down, as if he were born to it.
It had been about six weeks since they and some fifty other new marines had left the barracks at Plymouth. They had gone southeast along the coast by hired transport ship, reaching Spithead, off of Portsmouth, in two days. There waited ten ships of the line from the inshore squadron, Nelson's reinforcements for the Mediterranean. They had been ferried across to them. Great, monstrous beasts the warships were. Harper had been awestruck as they loomed above him, all bulging hulls and closed gunport doors, painted black and yellow, with their masts reaching for the clouds, it seemed. When he had scrambled up the lowered rope ladder and come aboard, he had stared around him like a yokel in his first city. He just couldn't help himself. Finnigan had gently taken his arm and steered him below to their quarters. That very night, they had weighed anchor with the evening tide and set out for parts south.
As a third-rater, the Culloden carried a marine complement of eighty-one privates, two drummers, three corporals, three sergeants, three lieutenants, and one captain, a total of ninety-three marines out of a full crew of five hundred and ninety. Their quarters were belowdecks, between the sailors and the officers ("makes mutiny harder," Finnigan had said). Harper was amazed at how each square inch of the ship was utilized, nothing going to waste. He never would have believed that eighty men could sleep in so small a compartment, but they did. Fortunately, the close quarters of the marine barracks had prepared him, though there, he only had people sleeping on each side, not above and below as well. He soon got used to a sea-hammock, though.
Each day, up at dawn, cleaning his musket and gear to a spotless shine, giving his hair a fresh powder, as overhead, the sounds of holystones scrubbing the deck sounded. Then breakfast of a sweet porridge called "burgoo." He was still gaining solid, muscular weight, turning into a young giant. Even now, he was amazed at how well marines and sailors ate. Then, drill by platoon (usually ten to sixteen marines) on the deck, going through the maneuvers of wheeling and turning. After lunch (even if the beef was tough, it was still beef, and Harper had strong teeth), there was sentry duty. On different days, Harper had guarded the officer's quarters, the spirits cabinet, the ships' small arms, and the powder room. He learned to stand perfectly still on guard, while his mind soared with the birds or road into battle with Cuchulain. In late afternoon, the Culloden ran out its cannon for gunnery drill, and at least once a week, they used live ammunition, firing at casks floating two or three hundred yards out to sea, flying colored flags. Sometimes, Harper took a hand with the gun crews of the twenty-four pounders belowdecks, for he might be needed to man a gun if some of the crew were killed in combat. So he learned how to worm and sponge, once he even got to touch the match. He reveled in the deafening "boom-boom-boom-boom" of the rolling volleys that filled the room with smoke and left his face blackened. Then, as the sun set, it might be musketry practice, first in line along the foredeck (which he liked) and then up in the riggings (which he did not).
Then came supper, usually just biscuit with a little butter and cheese (still a feast compared to what he had grown up with). Then "Beat to quarters" when all hands would go to battle stations. It was crucial that they know to do so quickly when the real time came. At this time, Lieutenant Bromley might inspect his company's muskets and gear, ensuring all was in order. After that, he might have more sentry duty. If not, he would sit out at night with the seamen or the marines for their leisure time. He enjoyed their songs, particularly "Hearts of Oak."
"Come cheer up my lads,' tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year,
To honor we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?"
Harper would boom out the bass part on the chorus.
"Hearts of oak are our ships,
Jolly tars are our men,
We always are ready
Steady boys, steady,
We always will conquer again and again."
Harper felt himself part of some truly great enterprise, far bigger and better than anything he had ever imagined, side by side with comrades who he would die for and who would make the same sacrifice for him.
"We n'er see our foes but we will them to stay,
They never see us but they will us away
If they run we will follow and fight them ashore,
And if they don't fight us, we cannot do more."
Like those around him, Harper couldn't wait to find the French, to pound them into smithereens so they would never dare stick their froggy noses out to sea again.
"They swear they'll invade us, these terrible foes,
They frighten our women, our children and beaus,
But should their flat bottoms in darkness get o'er,
Still Britons they'll find to receive them on shore."
As far as Harper was concerned, no Frenchman would be left alive to invade. Not if he had anything to say about it. He threw the dice with the sailors a little, but always quit when he began to lose, for he only had his half pay, the rest went home to his family in Donegal. What he liked best though, was the stories that went the rounds of the deck, as the sailors would sit in a circle, smoking their pipes, under the million-starred sky. He heard some good ones, and he held them in the palm of his hand as he told them of Connla and the Fairy Maiden, and the Horned Women, and the Story of Deirdre.
But it had not been all sweetness and light on board the Culloden. Last Sunday, Harper had seen his first example of navy punishment. It had been at ten in the morning, and the marines had drawn up in a hollow square around the forward hold against which the grating had been upended. Captain Troubridge read out the charges against Able Seaman Schmitt, that though entrusted as paymaster for the crew, he had embezzled money in the sum of 67 pounds, eighteen shillings and four and a half pence. He had then attempted to desert at Gibraltar and then to Spain. The charges being proved, he was sentenced to be reduced to the ranks and receive five hundred lashes; and that half of the sums due him for pay be applied to the repayment of the embezzled funds till the whole amount was made good. Schmitt carried himself firmly and manfully as he was led to the grating and lashed to it by his wrists, with his arms stretched over his head. Then the lashing began to the cadence of the drum. Before the stroke-count had reached one hundred, his body began to writhe, the convulsions growing more extreme with each new stroke. The expression of his face though, remained unmoved. Then he began to moan, and speak in a low voice that Patrick, from his position in the square, could not make out. Once, and then twice, he said distinctly "I cannot bear it." When the count had reached three hundred, his back was a forest of bloody welts, and he slumped at the grating, apparently in a faint. The surgeon took his pulse and then signaled for the lashing to continue. After fifty more, he was cut down and dragged away, the remainder of the sentence to be carried out when he had recovered. As sailors stepped in to clean up the blood, Patrick hoped that he never ended up on the wrong end of the cat.
On Sundays, after the singing of the psalms and the reading of the Articles of War by Captain Troubridge, he would stand at the rail and marvel at the spectacle of the great warships in the Culloden's wake. The nearest was the Theseus, slicing through the waves like a great black and yellow knife, with a mustache of white foam at her bow. He looked up and up at the massive spread of white canvas above her, as if a great cloud had come down to rest on her deck. And he watched birds, some of which he had seen in Ireland, some of which were new, Great cormorants, black-winged stilts, ospreys, Sardinian shags, slender-billed gulls, Audubon's gulls, and so many more he could not count. They had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar in early May. Lieutenant Bromley, the young commander of Harper's company of marines turned to him and grinned.
"Gibraltar! Did you ever think you'd see such a sight, young Harper?"
"A fine big rock it is," commented Harper. "Almost as big as some of the ones we have in Donegal, Sir."
Bromley looked at Harper to see if he was being joked with, but the Irishman's face was a model of sincerity.
Troubridge had stayed long enough to confirm that Nelson was on station at Toulon with three ships of the line and two frigates, watching the French fleet that was assembling there for an unknown destination. They proceeded east along the Spanish coast. On the 20th, off of Majorca, they had encountered the edges of a nasty weather system to the east. Harper's sea legs were put to the test as the ship pitched and rolled amidst billowing gray waves capped with white, but by now, he had learned to keep his food down in all but the most extreme weather. He heard one old seaman comment that if Nelson had caught the worst of that, it may have gone badly for him.
On the June 7th, they cruised along Toulon, confirming that the French fleet had seized the opportunity to break out of Toulon harbor, presumably headed for their secret destination. They found Nelson's ships shortly thereafter. He had indeed had a rough time of it. As they drew nearer, an officer on the deck of his ship, the Vanguard, shouted through his trumpet that she had lost all of her masts in the big blow on the 20th. Her main topmast had gone over the side at about half-past one in the morning, with the mizzenmast soon following. They had tried to wear and scud before the gale, but at half-past-three, the foremast had gone in three pieces, and the bowsprit sprung in three places. When the day broke, they had only a portion of her spritsail. The gale continued to blow hard to the northeast, bearing them towards Corsica. Nelson was almost ready to abandon ship, but Captain Ball of the Alexander insisted she could be saved, and taken her in tow, while the other, the Orion, kept station off her port bow. There was no sign of the two frigates that should have been with Nelson, they had made for Gibraltar, where they had assumed the Vanguard would be towed for repairs. But Captain Saumarez had scouted out the Sardinian island of San Pietro as a safe anchorage, and it had taken him only four days to make repairs using the Alexander's spare masts.
Now, thirteen ships of the line, and a magnificent sight, they headed north to Elba, arriving at Civita Vechia on the 13th. Nelson had to consider the possibility that the French would attack Sicily, and, accordingly, on the 17th, they were at the bay of Naples, where Harper could see Mt. Vesuvius smoldering in the background. Nelson sent his one brig, the Mutine in to see the British Minister, Sir William Hamilton, from whom he hoped to get word of the French. Hamilton had heard that they might be at Malta, perhaps already attacking it. Nelson called all his commanders to dinner on the Vanguard to apprise them of the latest news. Harper had stood at attention as Troubridge had been piped over the side to his long boat and then back again. Rumor began to circulate around the Culloden that the French objective was Egypt, and that they meant to get their army to India.
Nelson now divided his fleet into three squadrons. In the center, he led in the Vanguard, with the Minotaur, Leander, Audacious, Defence, and Zealous in line behind him. To port, Captain Sir James Saumarez in the Orion led the Goliath, Majestic, and Bellerophon. To starboard, Culloden stood proudly before the Theseus, Alexander, and Swiftsure.
On 22nd of June, they reached Cape Passaro, on the southeastern tip of Sicily. They sighted two French frigates, but Nelson ignored them, he was after bigger game. He hailed a Genoese merchantman, and learned from her captain that the French had conquered Malta, and left a garrison there, while their fleet sailed on. A further conference of the captains took place aboard the Vanguard. The big question: was Sicily or Alexandria the French goal? The vote was unanimous for Alexandria, and so Nelson made south for Egypt, pressing on all canvas the ships would bear. That night, they lay with the south coast of Crete some knots off their port side in the darkness.
Although they did not know it, the French fleet was just over the horizon, laying in close to Crete, and would have been easily visible had it been day. They passed it in the dark.
As the huge French fleet hugged the coast of Crete in the darkness, a Captain of line grenadiers stood at the prow of his transport ship, hands clasped behind his back, staring out into the darkness and fog, the only sound the creaking of cordage. He was a big man, burly, with a fierce bristling black mustache. He felt a thrill of pride as he thought of the magnificent enterprise of which he was a part, the impartation of the principles of the Revolution to a primitive Eastern despotic backwater. He looked out into the darkness that concealed the four hundred ships of the fleet, seventeen ships of the line, four frigates, and the rest transports, blotting out the ocean like a forest of masts. He thought of the flower of French scholarship that accompanied this expedition; Monge the physicist, Berthollet the chemist, Nouet the astronomer, Saint-Hillarie the zoologist, Dolomieu the mineralogist, Dupuis the archaeologist, and Vivant-Denon, the artist. He thought of the thirty thousand French troops that sailed forth to conquer, and of their leaders, Kleber, Reynier, Murat, Marmont, Desaix, and above them all, Bonaparte, the man of destiny, whose star was ascendant and already blazing with glory. To fix oneself to that star was to share in its glory. And this Captain of line grenadiers was firmly fixed. He too was a man of destiny, a man who would share in the coming glory. The world would someday hear of Captain Jean Calvet.
On June 26th, Nelson sent the brig Mutine under Captain Thomas Hardy, ahead to Alexandria, to gain information from the British consul there. Hardy returned to report that the consul was absent, but Alexandria was empty of French ships. On the 29th, Nelson came within sight of Alexandria, and confirmed this frustrating news.
Harper stood at the rail with Lieutenant Bromley, the young commander of his company of Marines. Bromley waxed expansive at the sight of Alexandria, though it was only the merest shadow of its ancient glory. It was a miserable, decrepit looking port, its walls crumbling, sunk in dust and rubble, a few Bedouins the only visible inhabitants.
"Ah, the city of Alexander the Great, with four thousand palaces, theatres, temples, second city of the Roman Empire."
Harper's voice was innocently sincere.
"You know of course, Sir, that Alexander was an Irishman?"
Bromley's eyebrows raised, his voice was ironic.
"Really? I would have sworn he was Macedonian."
"Oh yes, sir, but by way of County Mayo."
Nelson determined that somehow, the French must have gotten past him, sailing west. Were they going to attack Sicily after all? All he could think to do was head back north the way he had come towards Crete, spreading his ships as widely as he could to search the maximum area. In exasperation, he turned his fleet about and again sailed north.
An hour after his last ship had disappeared over the horizon, the first French frigates pulled into Alexandria harbor. By July 19th, Nelson had returned to Sicily, to the port of Syracuse, but the French were not there. The fleet would stay for three days to take on fresh water and provisions. On the second day, Troubridge invited Admiral Nelson and Captains Saumarez and Ball to dinner on board the Culloden. Harper was part of the honor guard as they were piped aboard, all gold lace and glittering silver stars. Saumarez was stout and gray-haired, Ball younger but balding, with a high forehead and penetrating dark eyes. But Harper's eyes were immediately drawn to the third figure. He was surprised at his first sight of Nelson, he had expected someone taller. But there was no mistaking the empty right sleeve pinned to the jacket of this frail little wisp of a man with his amused, expressive face and winning smile. Captain Troubridge, on hand to welcome them, was a head taller than his colleagues and dark-haired.
As the officers went into the aft wardroom for a glass of Madeira, Harper had headed for his quarters when suddenly, the ship's steward grabbed his arm, an expression of panic on his face.
"One of our server's is drunk! I need you in the officer's dining room, now!"
Harper barely had time to open his mouth before his musket was plucked from his hand and he was propelled through the door towards the great dining room in the ship's stern. The steward pushed a carafe of wine into his hand.
"Easiest thing in the world, lad. Just stand behind the Admiral, fill his glass every time you see it empty. And take your hat off!"
He snatched away Harper's bicorn, hustled him through the double inner doors, to where the officers were sitting at a long table before the ship's great stern windows. The steward guided him - Saint Patrick preserve him, he was right behind Nelson!
The next hour passed for Harper in a dreamlike state of combined fear and awe. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer, and he never dared let Nelson's wine get more than an inch from the top of the glass before he refilled it. For good measure, he refilled the glasses of the officers on either side as well. His panic, however, did not so overwhelm him that he was not able to catch some of the conversation.
"Once I knew that the French were neither west of Sicily, nor at Corfu," said Nelson, "to go to Alexandria seemed to me the most natural of courses, especially since that was your consensus as well. As I have made plain in my letter to his Lordship, if one raises the objection that I should not have gone on such a long voyage without more exact knowledge of the enemy's destination, I must reply, who was I to get it from? From Sicily or Naples? If they knew, they kept me in ignorance. Was I to wait patiently until I had certain news? If I had done so, the French would have been in India before I could act. I cannot bear to do nothing, and choose to stand or fall by my limited information."
Troubridge, sitting at the head of the table, was wholly supportive. "My dear fellow, no such letter was necessary. You have Lord St. Vincent's unqualified support, he will back you to the hilt in whatever course you choose."
"If only I hadn't lost those blasted frigates!" Nelson continued. "But if the French are above water, I will find them out and bring them to battle! I will not prove unworthy of his Lordship's faith in me."
Lunch was a great success, from the suckling pig to a fine brace of langoustine lobsters. Harper was just beginning to believe that he would survive the ordeal after all, and allowed himself to breathe a little easier. But disaster was due, and it struck.
It was time for pudding, and the steward brought it in himself, Troubridge's personal favorite, a beautiful Spotted Dog. Harper was bending to fill the glass of the officer on Nelson's left. His eyes were focused on his target of that man's goblet, letting nothing else distract him. Thus, his elbow jostled the edge of the silver pudding platter, and the Spotted Dog, in all its glory, promptly slid off the plate and onto Captain Troubridge's lap.
For a few seconds, no one moved, they only stared. Harper's heart stopped in horror. Then the steward exploded at Harper.
"You clumsy oaf! Get out of here! You aren't fit to sling burgoo to peasants, let alone serve gentlemen!"
He hustled Harper towards the door. Harper's soul was in agony, his mind's eye was seeing himself tied to the grate for a thousand lashes at least, followed by keel-hauling in shark-filled water, and then stoppage of beer ration for life thereafter. But as he reached the door, something happened.
Nelson turned in his seat, and looked Harper in the face. His good eye, the left one, met Harper's. And he winked. Somehow, that wink calmed Harper's spirit, and told him that things would be all right.
After the door had closed behind Harper, the officers looked at the pudding in Captain Troubridge's lap. For a moment, Troubridge scowled. Then Nelson chuckled, the chuckle spreading to Saumarez and Ball, until finally Troubridge burst out in a great belly laugh.
"Well, gentlemen, I have eaten many a Spotted Dog, but this is the first one I have had the privilege of wearing! Let us see if we can salvage the situation, eh?"
The Spotted Dog was delicately returned to its platter, little the worse for wear, and they fell to with gusto, still laughing as they ate.
After he had changed his breeches and seen his guests over the side, Captain Troubridge summoned Lieutenant Bromley to his cabin. Bromley had heard the news and was expecting what the topic of inquiry was.
"Harper's his name Sir, an Irishman."
"What sort of marine is he?" asked Troubridge.
"He keeps his musket and kit in top order Sir, and is tolerably smart on drill. His enlistment papers have him as eighteen, but I think he might be younger, Sir. He continually outgrows his uniform, and it's turning into patches on top of patches. If I may say so, Sir, he did his best in an unexpected and unfamiliar situation for which he was not trained or suited -"
Troubridge waved his hand in dismissal.
"That's neither here nor there. My steward needed a server at the very last second, and grabbed the first man he saw. What else can you tell me about Private Harper?"
"Well, Sir, he's a good musket man, always hits his three aimed shots in a minute, though he's better on deck. Doesn't like the shrouds, Sir. He's prodigiously strong, and when I've watched him in bayonet drill, I've seen something dangerous in his eyes, hidden like, below the surface. I think, given the chance, he'd fight like an Irish fiend, Sir. He's a man I'd want beside me in a fight, not against me."
Troubridge leaned back and considered for a moment.
"Do you think he could handle a Nock gun?"
Bromley's face brightened.
"He might be able to at that, Sir.
"Then see to it before the next musket drill. We may as well get some use out of the infernal things"
Harper was in his quarters when Lieutenant Bromley entered and walked over to him.
"Come with me, Private Harper."
Harper wondered what all this was about, but that wink of Nelson's kept him calm as they walked through the ship's various compartments, stopping at the arms locker. The marine sentry saluted and stood aside for Bromley, who worked a key in the door's padlock.
"You made quite an impression on the Captain today."
"Yes, Sir, terribly sorry, Sir."
"Well, it's not how I would have gone about getting noticed, but it seems to have worked."
He unlocked the cabinet, and Harper followed him in. Inside, the chamber showed rows of muskets in racks, ready to be handed out before the battle. Bromley looked around for a moment, then saw what he wanted, withdrew it from the rack, and handed it to Harper.
"These beastly things have been in storage for the past ten years. They seemed like a good idea at the time, the only thing was, they bloody well near broke the shoulder of anyone who tried to shoot one."
Harper's eyes widened as he took the weapon. At forty-two inches long, it was noticeably shorter than his Brown Bess, but also significantly heavier. It had not one, but seven half-inch barrels, six encircling a central seventh. The barrels were short, only about two feet long, so the range would be limited, but the havoc it could wreak on infantry at close range boggled the mind.
"Captain Troubridge thinks you might be able to handle it, and I concur. You'll keep your regular musket, of course, but this shall be your, shall we say supplementary weapon, assuming you prove capable of using it."
Harper was already looking at his new weapon with a sense of awe and pride. It seemed, somehow, that it had been made just for him. Bromley had to break him out of his entrancement by pulling him towards the door. Harper remembered his gratitude just in time.
"Thank you, Sir!"
"Just see to it that you fire it with more proficiency than you serve table, or our surgeon will have quite a bit of work."
After three days in Syracuse, the fleet once more sailed eastwards, towards the southern cape of the Greek Islands, to see if the French were moving towards Constantinople. From there he would put in at Cyprus. On the 28th of July, the Culloden was detached to the Gulf of Koroni to try to get news. They spotted a French brig, which tried to run until they put a warning shot across her bow. Her Captain was brought on board and interrogated, and Troubridge got thrilling news. The French fleet had been sailing along the coast of Crete, four weeks earlier. With the brig (and her cargo of wine) in tow, they returned to the fleet. Finnigan nudged Harper in the ribs.
"What'd I tell you lad? "Prize money!"
When he got the news, Nelson realized he had been right all along. The French were making for Alexandria; he had simply gotten there and left before they had arrived. He immediately turned the fleet south.
The next day, during musketry practice, Harper got to try out his volley gun. It had been agreed that he would fire it from the deck, for fear of setting the sails afire. That was fine by him. It took a long time to load, and he reflected that he would have to choose carefully when he used it in a fight. Then he stood at the rail, the marines on either side of him looking nervously at the monstrous thing in his hands. He aimed it at the cask floating in the water some seventy yards away.
"On the uproll, fire!"
The blast rivaled that of a nine-pounder full of canister, and the dense cloud of smoke hid Harper for a moment. It kicked like a castrated bull, but he was ready for it and stood firm to receive the recoil. The marines raised a hearty cheer as the cask was torn to pieces, though how much was due to the volley gun, none could tell. Harper looked lovingly at his weapon.
Cuchulain had his Gae Bolg, and he had his volley gun.
On August 1st, Nelson's fleet sighted Alexandria, again. As they cruised east along the coast, they could see an immense number of transports in the city's harbor. Their course turned northeast for about fifteen miles. They saw a small island, which partially concealed a long, spit of land with a small fort on it, and beyond it, a curving, shallow bay, its coast perhaps thirty miles long in total. Its name was Abuquir. It was the Zealous who spotted them first, signaling the Vanguard, who in turn sent the message quickly down the fleet to every ship.
"Enemy in sight!"