The Castle (18)
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A sharp knock on the cabin door roused the captain of the Adventurer from his sleep. Dan Arent, his throat dry, his mouth still bitter from brandy and a bad dream, called out, inviting the visitor to enter. A deckhand looked in and informed him that the ship was nearing Cornish waters. Arent nodded, waved the deck boy away. Normally Cadwaller would be the one to convey such a message. But not now - not after their strained discussion of the previous day.
Arent took a wet flannel, washed his face and neck. Then, having dressed, he pondered over the map awhile before making his way onto deck. Cadwaller was at the wheel, a position he’d kept throughout the night. The wind was fair and the ocean calm. The rush of fresh sea air invigorated Arent’s mood. ‘Best get some sleep old sailor’ Arent said with a grin. ‘We’ll lie low for a while – take stock before we show our colours, eh ?’ Cadwaller, his hands fixed firmly to the wheel, said nothing. Arent had no wish to see their friendship deteriorate in such a manner but felt affronted by Cadwaller’s stubbornness, as well as his friend’s easy insistence the previous day that Arent remained ungrateful for the help he had been given. ‘Wheel locked. Ready to hand over’ Cadwaller said and let his hands fall to his sides. Arent moved into position and took hold. ‘Look, enough of the formalities, I want to…’ ‘She’s all yours’ said Cadwaller cutting Arent short. Then, with a bitter edge: ‘Captain.’
After an hour or so at the wheel Arent ordered the mainsail to be slackened. The Adventurer quickly lost speed, moving forward at a slow pace, powered by the fore alone. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Dusk, he thought, would be the optimum time to drop anchor. Once at rest, and with the castle in sight, Arent would wait and choose his moment. Then there would be no time to spare. As soon as the garrison’s vessels had drawn alongside, the Adventurer’s cargo would be loaded: gunpowder, bullet and match first; foodstuffs and general supplies to follow. Then with the hull clear, Arent would turn the Adventurer on her tail and head for home.
As well as orders to deliver military and stock supplies, Pindar had given Arent a letter addressed to the castle governor, Sir John Arundel. The contents of the letter, of course, remained unknown to Arent but he surmised it contained instructions regarding the castle’s defence, or perhaps arrangements for the future transportation of soldiers. Whatever secrets the letter carried, Arent wasn’t interested. He’d placed it in his leather nap sack for safe keeping. At the earliest opportunity he would hand it over to one of the castle’s senior officers and be done with it.
By late afternoon, sailing tight to shore, Arent sighted St Mawes. He ordered the anchor dropped, giving time for the crew to take up their positions. The boy who sat in the crow’s nest shouted: ‘Captain – I can see Pendennis.’ A cheer broke out, which Arent quickly muted. ‘What mood is she in ?’ he asked the boy. ‘Angry, captain – like a devil’s head, so’s I reckon.’
Cadwaller came on deck. His mood seemed more even than earlier; he looked eager for the job to be set in motion. ‘Orders, Captain ?’ Arent looked at his friend, saw grey, steely eyes, hardened by a new-found anger. ‘To the prow – and prepare the beacon. Tell me everything you see.’
At six pm, with only light traffic passing their way, Arent called for the anchor to be raised. The day was fading now; a grim early evening haze was descending on the back of a bitter squall. Arent cut a slow course eastward, away from the castle. Once the beacon’s message had been answered he would make a decisive tack west, ready to meet the castle’s skiff. What’s more, their easy passage would give him time to observe the harbour’s entrance and any suspicious movement therein.
The ship padded through choppier waters. As the full extent of the harbour came into view Arent grew more confident. He could see nothing to cause concern, leading him to believe that Fairfax’s army was still days away from Falmouth or, better still, had met fierce resistance elsewhere.
So quiet was it that Arent told Cadwaller to give up the signal to the castle’s men. A number of the garrison’s soldiers had already spied the Adventurer and were grouped on shore, preparing to meet Arent’s ship. Cadwaller lit an oil lamp while another crew member shielded the glass with a leather apron. They set the lamp into position on the gunwale and Cadwaller’s mate lifted and dropped the apron three times. Then they waited, staring high up at the darkening isthmus, until the soldiers who manned the castle's great turret returned the signal in kind. Now Arent decided to abandon all caution and cut west. He shouted the order; the topsails flashed out, the timbers and cordage groaned as the ship changed course. Soon they saw the garrison’s troops busying themselves along the shoreline, shadowy figures darting here and there. Arent took the wheel. ‘Steady now’ he shouted. ‘Make ready with the fore.’ The Adventurer drifted in a close haul to a position in line with the castle’s beacon. Tighter, tighter they drifted until they neared the shallows beyond which lay the rough jagged rock that could tear the hull of any vessel. Cadwaller, hanging over the side, monitoring the depth, gave a shout; Arent ordered the anchors be dropped. The Adventurer dragged to a halt.
Arent ordered his men to prepare the cargo. The garrison’s skiff was already making good progress; soon it would be alongside.
‘You were expected a time ago’ shouted one of the castle soldiers as the skiff neared. ‘Two days since.’
Arent and other members of his crew hung over the gunwale as the smaller boat was tethered. The captain had no desire to waste valuable time explaining the late arrival of gunpowder. Instead, his crew hurried along as the first barrels were brought up and secured to the pulleys.
The castle’s soldiers waited in anticipation as the first barrel swung precariously above them. Cadwaller muscled his way forward and helped take up the strain, barking at the crew to release the rope as slow as they were able, marking the tension and speed of the barrel’s descent. Arent looked on in silence; transferring the cargo was going to take longer than he anticipated.
As they began to gain momentum and the third barrel was eased onto the skiff Arent was alerted by flickers of firelight. It came from amongst the trees that covered the headland below the castle. For some reason the firelight disturbed him. He turned and looked at the smaller castle, St Mawes, as if fearing the fire was acting as a beacon, communicating some undefined message, but he could see nothing untoward.
It was only after the tenth barrel of powder had been lowered that Arent saw the dark imposing shape of a man ‘o war appear from off the Adventurer’s stern, pushing through the water like the avenging monster he had seen in his dreams, intent on his punishment.
A shot rang out – the unmistakable sound of canon – aimed in the direction of the men gathered on the shoreline. Arent heard screams, watched shadows scuttle across rocks. The shoreline beacon was quickly extinguished. Then another blast – this time from off the Adventurer’s bow. The shot landed away on the starboard side but close enough to the castle’s soldiers for panic to set in. The Adventurer’s ropes loosened and two barrels of gunpowder fell into the sea.
‘Trim the sails’ Arent yelled and once again began the slow groaning process of readying the pear-shaped vessel to tack, first west, then south.
He spun the ship’s wheel, felt a wave of anxiety surge through him as he glanced towards the mizzen, realising that two frigates had emerged in a co-ordinated pincer movement. Arent again gave the order to set the fore and main, willing the wind to punch into the sails. As he did so more shots pierced the gathering dusk. The second frigate, making its way out of the harbour, now began attacking the garrison while the first, the giant man ‘o’ war, launched another round in the direction of the Adventurer. This time the shot landed closer than the last.
Arent screamed for the ship to pick up speed so they could escape the same way they arrived, but the windward chaser was gaining. Another shot whistled overhead; Arent realised that both ships were now firing at the Adventurer. As the fear and chaos of the moment began to grow Arent cursed himself. His foolishness had done for them all; he should have waited – should have sent a tender into the harbour to cast a better eye. And suddenly he realised the true nature of the situation: Fairfax’s army had already taken the town, were even now securing the most south westerly coast. How stupid of him to be so hasty, to believe Pindar’s faulty intelligence, to think that fate had for once dealt him a fair hand.
‘They’re gaining’ shouted Cadwaller. ‘We’re not going to bring her up to speed.’
It was true. The squall had passed, the wind was even. Another two blasts rang out, both landing so close Arent felt the rush in the atmosphere as the shots broke water. The two enemy ships were now on course to cut off the Adventurer from the open sea. Arent knew he had a decision to make. He could press on and try to escape, risking the scuttling of his ship, or else surrender and keep the Adventurer intact, trading his knowledge of Pindar’s network of Royalist sympathisers for a more lenient outcome. The proximity of the next shot, whistling close past the mainsail, made his decision for him. Arent shouted to drop anchor.
Cadwaller, hunkering beneath the prow, called out: ‘Has the Captain turned into a madman ?’
Arent ignored him. He took off his jacket and blouse, tied his shirt to a broom handle. Defiantly, he crossed to the starboard side of the ship, began waving the white cloth at the approaching vessel. Then he crossed to the port side and repeated the action. The second vessel was closing rapidly. Arent could see a group of soldiers at the prow, eager to come on board.
Cadwaller ran towards Arent and knocked the broom from his hands. Arent retaliated, the two men clinging to one another like love-lorn schoolboys. ‘Why have you surrendered, you cur!’ Cadwaller screamed. ‘Have you no shame!’ Arent pushed Cadwaller against the gunwale. ‘These men will not die on my account, Cadwaller…They will not be sacrificed for a deposed and wretched English king!’
The struggle continued, the culmination of hours of bitterness, but was a side show as the rest of the crew looked on at the two vessels about to come alongside. As the first Parliamentary soldiers jumped across onto the Adventurer’s deck Arent and Cadwaller were forcibly parted. The officer in charge called out for the captain of the ship to make himself known. Naked from the waist up, his torso red after the struggle with his second in command, Arent wiped blood from his lip and declared himself owner and commander, which proved something of a surprise to the Roundheads, who looked upon him in his mussed and shabby state with considerable unease.
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It must have been so
It must have been so difficult back then to arrive at a destination, not knowing whether it was safe or not. Then to be faced with unprepared firing. Arent really needs Cadwaller's friendship now more than ever.
You've described the drama so well, I could picture the scene perfectly. I CAN'T WAIT FOR MORE!
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it would take a very good
it would take a very good piece of writing to interest me in a battle at sea - but you managed it!
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what seemed so easy becomes
what seemed so easy becomes impossible. That's the way to go.
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This was as exciting as
This was as exciting as anything from Horblower! Have no idea about ships but how you described it all rang true, particularly the desperation for wind, and how he had to make his choice so quickly to surrender, it was really tense, and the extra element of Cadwaller's friendship being at risk was another stressful dimension, amazing writing!
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