An Awkward Commission

Read An Awkward Commission for Free Online

Book: Read An Awkward Commission for Free Online
Authors: David Donachie
outside the Articles of War.
    ‘I must confess to knowing very little of you, Mr Coyle, which is shameful given the time we have spent at sea. Now I have a chance to make amends. Would it be too much of a strain for you to tell me something of yourself?’
    Again Coyle had to keep a straight face, for once his leg had been set in splints, and he had rested from a nightof deep discomfort, he had suffered a long interrogation by the surgeon; where was he from, did he have any family, what had brought him into the Navy, where did he expect that such service would take him, all jotted down in one of those little notebooks that Lutyens was never without. Suspicious that the surgeon had the means to withhold relief from pain, Coyle had said more than he normally would to anyone. It was not that he was a secretive man, but life had taught him that it was best to keep what was personal to himself.
    ‘Not much to tell, Mam. I was a soldier afore I came to the Navy, which is why I has my rating.’ Seeing the look of curiosity, he added, ‘Master-at-Arms aboard ship is often an office filled by an ex-soldier, seeing as we know about weapons and their use, for there be precious few tars of my acquaintance who know bug— ’owt about them, which can be mortal should we get into a fight. Half of them I teach are more like to shoot their foot off than maim an enemy, and as for wielding a cutlass, why they’re more danger to their own.’
    Emily Barclay had come below to comfort Coyle, to ask if he had any family, would he like her to pen a letter for him, always assuming he lacked the ability to write himself. The idea that came into her head then was sudden and thrilling.
    ‘Would you teach me to shoot, Mr Coyle?’
    He stirred in surprise and pain flashed over his face. ‘You, Mam?’
    ‘Why not? I am told you will be laid up for some time, but you will be capable of some movement.’
    ‘Shooting muskets ain’t for ladies, Mam.’
    ‘Why ever not, Mr Coyle? Am I not aboard a fighting vessel?’
    ‘The very idea. Why, Captain Barclay would have my guts at the suggestion.’
    ‘Mr Coyle,’ Emily replied, with a look on her face that brooked no argument, ‘you must leave the feelings of Captain Barclay to me.’
    It was late afternoon before HMS Brilliant got close enough to make out the state of the French fleet, and what young Mr Farmiloe, his lookout, saw in the outer roadstead and reported to him, made Ralph Barclay content, for the news was promising. The last thing he wanted was to send back a depressing despatch. Even if he could not be blamed for telling the truth, he knew that the person who delivered bad news in King George’s Navy was sometimes somehow tainted by association. There were two dozen ships of the line, but none with their yards crossed and ready for sea. In the dockyard other line-of-battle ships were being built or repaired, and Farmiloe was sure that another one, the biggest of them all, was floating in the water of the inner harbour and being fitted out. They came about twice to traverse the harbour entrance, well out of the range of any fortress guns, forty-two pounders capable of firing a ball some two miles. That they made no attempt to essay the range made the thought of closer observation tempting, but Ralph Barclay surmised they were keeping their powder dry for that very purpose, in the hope that he would stray into their deadly orbit.
    ‘Vessel making sail in the outer roads, sir.’
    ‘Can you make out what it is, Mr Farmiloe?’
    ‘Frigate, sir, but I can not see the ports to assess the number of guns as they are hidden by the mole.’
    ‘Come to chase us off, sir,’ said Glaister.
    ‘Too late for that, I think, Lieutenant. More likely their admiral has a notion that we will engage and he can take or sink us. That now is the only way to stop us telling the fleet what we have observed.’
    ‘That tricolour must have fooled them, sir.’
    ‘Yes. Let’s get it down and show them

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