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Alexander Kent - Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger

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Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger
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Alexander Kent - Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger

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This story is set in the winter of 1773, in and around the West Country of England. Midshipman Bolitho's ship, the Gorgon, is laid up for refit, and he with some other 'young gentlemen' is allowed home for Christmas. Bolitho, now seventeen, returns to his family in Falmouth, taking with him his best friend and fellow midshipman, Martyn Dancer. Bolitho soon discovers that all is not well in Cornwall. There are rumours of an increase in smuggling, even of witchcraft, and when a murdered man is found near the Bolitho house, ugly rumour becomes reality. Wrecking, the most savage of all crimes, is a further cause for alarm. Only a small and agile man-of-war can be of use against such restless enemies. To Falmouth comes one such vessel, the Avenger, and thoughts of a carefree leave are quickly forgotten by Richard Bolitho, especially when he learns the name of the Avenger's commander.

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Alexander Kent


Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger


(Bolitho – 2)

1. Home From the Sea

With an impressive clatter of wheels the stage-coach shivered to a halt beside the inn's courtyard and its handful of weary passengers gave a sigh of relief. It was early December, the year 1773, and Falmouth, like most of Cornwall, was covered in a blanket of snow and slush. Standing in the dull afternoon light, with its four horses steaming from their hard drive, the coach seemed to have no colour, as it was coated with mud from axles to roof.

Midshipman Richard Bolitho jumped down and stood for a few moments just staring at the old, familiar inn and the weathered buildings beyond. It had been a painful ride. Only fifty-five miles from Plymouth to here, but it had taken two days. The coach had gone inland, almost into Bodmin Moor, to avoid flooding from the River Fowey, and the coachman had firmly refused to move at night because of the treacherous roads. Bolitho suspected he was more afraid of highwaymen than weather. Those gentlemen found it much easier to prey on coaches bogged down on muddy, rutted tracks than to match shots with an eagle-eyed guard on the King's highway.

He forgot the journey, the bustling ostlers who were releasing the horses from their harness, also the other passengers as they hurried toward the inn's inviting warmth, and favoured the moment.

It had been a year and two months since he had left Falmouth to join the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Gorgon at Spithead. Now she lay at Plymouth for a much-needed refit and overhaul, and he, Richard Bolitho, had come home for a well-earned leave.

Bolitho held out his hand to steady his travelling companion as he climbed down to join him in the bitter wind. Midshipman Martyn Dancer had joined Gorgon on the same day as himself, and like Bolitho was seventeen years old.

`Well, Martyn, we have arrived.'

Bolitho smiled, glad Dancer had come with him. His home was in London, and quite different in a thousand ways from his own. Whereas the Bolithos had been sea officers for generations, Dancer's father was a rich City of London tea merchant. But if their worlds were miles apart, Bolitho felt towards Martyn Dancer as he would to a brother.

When Gorgon had anchored, and the mail had been brought aboard, Dancer had discovered that his parents were abroad. He had immediately suggested that Bolitho should keep him company in London, but Gorgon's first lieutenant, the ever-watchful Mr Verling, had said icily, `I should think not indeed.

Alone in that city, your father would see me damned for it!,'

So Dancer had readily accepted Bolitho's invitation. Bolitho was secretly glad. And he was eager to see his family again, for them to see him, and the change that fourteen months of hard service had offered him. Like his friend, he was leaner, if that were possible, more confident, and above all grateful to have survived both storm and shot.

The coach guard touched his hat and took the coins which Bolitho thrust into his gloved fist.

`Don't 'ee fear, zur. I'll tell the innkeeper to send your chests up to the house directly.' He jerked his thumb at the inn windows, already glowing with lantern light. `Now I'll join me fellow travellers for an hour, then on to Penzance.' He walked away, adding, `Good luck to 'ee, young gennlemen.'

Bolitho watched him thoughtfully. So many Bolithos had mounted or dismounted from coaches here. On their way to far-off places, returning from one ship or another. Some never came back at all.

He threw his blue boat-cloak round his shoulders and said, `We'll walk. Get the blood alive again, eh?

Dancer nodded, his teeth chattering uncontrollably. Like Bolitho, he was very tanned, and was still unable to accept the violent change of weather and climate after a year in and around the African coastline.

Now, as they strode through the mud and slush, past the old church and ancient trees, it was hard to believe it had ever happened. Searching for corsairs, retaking the brig Sandpiper and using her to destroy a pirate's ship after a chase through dangerous reefs. Men had died, many more had suffered from all the countless burdens which beset sailors everywhere. Bolitho had fought hand to hand, had been made to kill, had watched one of the Gorgon's midshipmen fall dead during an attack on a slaver's stronghold. They were no longer boys. They had become young men together.

`There it is.' Bolitho pointed at the big grey house, square and uncompromising, almost the same colour as the low, scudding clouds and the headland beyond.

Through the gates and up to the broad doorway. He did not even have to reach for one of the massive iron-ringed handles, for the doors swung inwards and he saw Mrs Tremayne, the housekeeper, rushing to meet him, her red face beaming with pleasure.

She hugged him to her, overwhelming him, bringing back even more memories. Her smell of clean linen and lavender, of kitchens and hung bacon. She was well over sixty-five, and was as much a part of the house as its foundations.

She rocked him back and forth like a child, although he was a head taller than she.

`Oh, young Master Dick, what have they done to 'ee?' She was almost in tears. 'You'm as thin as a reed, nothin' to 'ee at all. I'll soon put some meat on your bones.'

She saw Dancer for the first time and released him reluctantly.

Bolitho grinned, embarrassed but pleased at her concern. She had been far worse when he had first gone to sea at the age of twelve.

`This is my friend, Martyn Dancer. He's to stay with us.'

They all turned as Bolitho's mother appeared on the great stairway.

`And you will be most welcome.'

Dancer watched her, entranced. He had heard plenty about Harriet Bolitho during the long seawatches and the rare moments of peace between decks. But she was like no woman in his imaginary picture. She seemed too young to be Richard's mother, too.fragile even to be left so often alone in this great stone house below the Pendennis Castle headland.

`Mother.'

Bolitho went to her and they embraced for a long moment. And still Dancer watched. Richard, his friend, whom he had come to know so well, usually so good at hiding his feelings behind an impassive face and those calm grey eyes. Whose hair was as black as his own was fair, who could show emotion at the death of a friend, but who had become a lion in battle, looked more like her suitor than a son.

She said to Dancer, `How long?'

It was calmly put, but he sensed the edge in her question.

Bolitho replied for him. `Four weeks. Maybe longer if…'

She reached up and touched his hair.

`I know, Dick. That word if. The Navy must have invented it.'

She put her hands through their arms and linked them together.

`But you will be home for Christmas. And you have a friend. That is good. Your father is still away in India.' She sighed. `And I am afraid Felicity is married and with her husband's regiment in Canterbury.'

Bolitho turned and studied her gravely. He had been thinking only of himself. Of his homecoming, his own pride at what he had done. And she had been made to face everything alone, as was too often the case with the women who married into the Bolitho family.

His sister, Felicity, who was now nineteen, had been very happy to receive one of the young officers from the local garrison. While he was away she had married him, and had gone.

Bolitho had guessed that his only brother, Hugh, would be away. He was four years his senior, the apple of his father's eye, and at present a lieutenant aboard a frigate.

He asked awkwardly, `And Nancy? Is she well, Mother?'

Her face lit up, making her appear her old self again.

`Indeed she is, Dick, although she is out visiting, despite the weather.'

Dancer felt strangely relieved. He had heard a good deal about Nancy, the youngest of the family. She would be about sixteen, and something of a beauty, if her mother was anything to judge by.

Bolitho saw his friend's expression and said, `That is good news.'

She looked from one to the other and laughed. `I see your point.'

`I'll take Martyn to his room, Mother.'

She nodded, watching them as they climbed the stairway, past the watching portraits of long-dead Bolithos.

`When the post-boy told us that the Gorgon was in Plymouth, I knew you would come home, Dick. I'd never forgive your Captain Conway if he'd denied me that pleasure V

Bolitho thought of the captain, aloof, impressively calm no matter what the hazards. He had never really pictured him as a ladies' man.

Dancer was studying one portrait at the turn of the stairway.

Bolitho said quietly, 'My grandfather Denziel. He was with Wolfe at Quebec. Grand old man, I think. Sometimes I can't remember if I really knew him, or if it was what my father told me about him which remains.'

Dancer grinned. `He looks a -lively sort. And Rear Admiral, no less!'

He followed Bolitho along the landing, hearing the wind and sleet against the windows. It felt strange after a ship's constant movement, the sounds and smells of a crowded man-of-war.

It was always the same with midshipmen. They were constantly hungry, and being chased and.harried in every direction. Now, if only for a few days, he would find peace, and if Mrs Tremayne had anything to do with it, a full stomach too.

Bolitho opened a door for him. `One of the maids will bring your things, Martyn.' He faltered, his eyes like the sea beyond the headland. `I'm glad you came. Once or twice,' he hesitated, `… back over the months, I thought I would never be coming here again. Having you with me makes it feel complete.'

He swung away, and Dancer closed the door quietly behind him.

Dancer knew exactly what he had meant, and

was moved to have shared the moment with him. He crossed to a window and peered through the

streaming glass. Almost lost in the winter's gloom

the sea was lively and criss-crossed with angry crests. It was out there waiting for them to return. He smiled and started to undress. Well, it could damned well wait a bit longer!

`So, Martyn, what did you think of your first free evening?'

The two midshipmen sat on either side of a roaring log fire, legs outstretched, eyes drooping from the heat and the biggest meal Mrs Tremayne had prepared for some time.

Dancer raised his goblet and watched the flames change colour through the ruby port and smiled contentedly.

`Something akin to a miracle.'

It had been a lengthy meal, with Bolitho's mother and his young sister Nancy both eager and willing just to let them talk. Bolitho had found himself wondering how many tales had been passed across that same table, some embroidered no doubt, but all true.

Nancy had worn a new gown for the occasion, which she apparently had' made in Truro. `The latest

thing in France.' It had been low-cut, and although her mother had frowned once or twice, it made her look younger rather than wanton.

She was much more like her mother than her sister, who took after the Bolitho side of the family, with the same ready smile which had charmed Captain James Bolitho when he had taken a Scottish girl for his wife.

Nancy had made a great impression on Dancer, and Bolitho guessed it was probably mutual.

Outside the curtained windows it was quieter, the sleet having given way to snow, which had already covered the outbuildings and stables in a thick, glistening blanket. No one would be moving very far tonight, Bolitho thought, and he pitied the coach on its way to Penzance.

How still the house seemed, the servants having gone to bed long since, leaving the two friends to drowse or yarn as so inclined.

`Tomorrow we'll go to the harbour, Martyn, although Mr Tremayne tells me there's little anchored in the Roads at present worth looking at.'

The male half of the Tremayne family was the household steward and general handyman. Like the other retainers he was old. Although the Seven Years War had ended ten years back, it had left a lot of unfilled gaps in the villages and hamlets. Some young men had fallen in battle, others had liked the outside world better than their own rural communities and had stayed away. In Falmouth you were usually a sailor or a farm worker, and that was how, it had always been.

`Maybe it will be clear enough for us to ride, eh?' Bolitho smiled. `Ride?'

`We don't go everywhere in London by coach, you know!'

Their laughter stopped in mid-air as two loud bangs echoed from the front doorway.

`Who is abroad at this hour?' Dancer was already on his feet.

Bolitho held up his hand. `Wait.' He strode to a cupboard and took out a pistol. `It is well to be careful, even here.'

Together they opened the big double doors, feeling the cold wind wrap around their overheated bodies like a shroud.

Bolitho saw it was his father's gamekeeper, John Pendrith, who had a cottage close to the house. He was a powerfully built, morose sort of man, who was much feared by the local poachers. And there were quite a few of them.

`Oi be sorry to disturb you, zur.' He gestured vaguely with his long-barrelled musket. `But one o' the lads come up from the town. Old Reverend Walmsley said it were the best thing to do.'

`Come in, John.'

Bolitho closed the doors after them. The big gamekeeper's presence, let alone his air of mystery, had made him uneasy in some way.

Pendrith took a glass of brandy and warmed himself by the fire, the steam rising from his thick coat like a cart-horse.

Whatever it was, it must be important for old Walmsley, the rector, to send a messenger here.

`This lad found a corpse, zur. Down on the foreshore. Bin in the water for some while, 'e reckons.' He looked up, his eyes bleak. `It were Tom Morgan, zur.'

Bolitho bit his lip. `The revenue officer?'

`Aye. 'E'd bin done in afore 'e went into the water, so the lad says.'

There were sounds on the stairway, and then Bolitho's mother, wrapped in a green velvet cloak, hurried down towards them, her eyes questioning.

Bolitho said, `I can deal with it, Mother. They've found Tom Morgan on the foreshore.'

`Dead?'

Pendrith said bluntly, `Murdered, ma'am.' To Bolitho he explained, 'Y'see, zur, with the soldiers away, an' the squire in Bath, the old Reverend turned to you like.' He grimaced. `You bein' a King's officer, so to speak.'

Dancer exclaimed, `Surely there's somebody else?'

Bolitho's mother was already pulling at the bellrope, her face pale but determined.

`No. They always come to the house. I'll tell Corker to saddle two horses. You go with them, John.'

Bolitho said quietly, `I'd rather he was here, with you.' He -squeezed her arm. `It's all right. Really. I'm not the boy who went off to sea with an apple in his pocket. Not any more.'

It was strange how easily it came to him. One minute he had been ready for bed. Now he was alert, every nerve keen to sudden danger. From the look on Dancer's face, he knew he was equally affected.

Pendrith said, `I sent the lad back to watch over the body. You'll remember the place, zur. The cove where you an' your brother overturned that dory an' took a good beatin' for it!' He gave a slow grin.

One of the maids appeared, and listened to her instructions before hurrying away to tell Corker, the coachman, what to do.

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