It’s almost December and as we go into the final month of the year, we present Lou Faulkner’s Men of War (£5.41 on Kindle).
Two nations at war. Two enemies, with more in common than they know. A swift ship, and stars to sail her by. How can Captain Henry Noble and Christophe, Comte de St-Denys chart a safe course through the shoals of eighteenth-century politics and social norms to find a safe anchorage together?
Lou Falkner writes: after twenty years in bookselling, I decided it was time I started writing. History and landscapes always play a big part in my stories, a relic of my long-ago degree. I’m a Brit by birth, but live in Australia, surrounded by parrots and peacocks.
The brig brought round her yards. Holding on to the ratlines, Christophe spared a moment to focus the telescope on their pursuer, and all but laughed as he saw the ants’ nest of consternation that the privateer’s change of course had brought about. A figure – the captain, surely – on the quarterdeck, gesturing here and there, and no doubt bellowing orders which were lost in the intervening distance. Men were racing up the rigging, and at the foremast head, a figure leaning out and pointing directly at him. There was urgency in every line of him: stocky, not over-tall, his hair a gleam of gold; and as Christophe watched, he sketched a salute and Christophe could have sworn he laughed. Too far to see clearly, of course, but it was there even in his posture.
Christophe clung to the foremast cross-trees, the wind ruffling his hair, while they closed the distance to the passage they had chosen. The roar, as of waterfalls or pounding rain, had diminished, though they were nearing the point of its origin. Christophe pulled his watch out a little way and glanced at it. Slack tide in five minutes. The way was clear ahead, and beyond it, safety – but before they reached that safety, they had to navigate the whirlpool.
Last chance to draw back, to surrender, to save everyone’s lives. He glanced back to the quarterdeck where LeBrun stood, black beard bristling, in an attitude that spoke determination in every line. The crew were less assured – alert enough, but casting nervous glances ahead now and then. This was a danger for which even the shores of Brittany could not entirely prepare them.
Christophe stared ahead. An invisible trigonometry of rocks, wind and current built itself across the scene.
There was a cry from the quarterdeck. “They’re firing!”
Christophe twisted round to see smoke puff out from Arrow’s foredeck. A second later, the noise followed. The bow-chasers, fired in desperation: they were at the extreme of range still, and the balls skipped across the waves before plunging down a hundred yards short.
No more hesitation. A shout from LeBrun. “St-Denys! Do we go now?”
“Yes! Starboard tack! Now!” And God help us all, he thought, while LeBrun ordered all sail and the men leapt into frantic activity, shoving the booms far out, goose-winged, to catch what breeze the pursuing brig had not stolen from them.
Ahead, between two bulky islands, the mild sunlight of a Highland morning glinted on a stretch of surly water. Slack tide or no it churned like a pot coming up to the boil. Christophe took a firmer grip on the ratlines, and called out directions. “Two points port! Hold! Dead on! The crag is your mark!”
And they were into the whirlpool’s waters. Ahead, the waves lurched and seethed uneasily.
Two more shots from the brig – but she was ten minutes behind, and, unless they had a very lucky shot, they would never catch the privateer, now flying for her life into the most appalling danger. The tales David had told him flashed into his mind; the witch beneath the sea, washing her plaid; the Viking longship, held on a rope of hair. He prayed that he had remembered David’s stories of running the whirlpool correctly – then clung closer to the ratlines as the first rogue wave lifted beneath the Jeanne.
There was silence now on the decks. The men at the tiller were braced and tense, no doubt, though he could not see them away behind the mainsail’s curve. Another wave suddenly sprang at him from under the prow. The spray fell short, spattering back onto the deck, and the privateer fell down the wave’s back in a manner quite unlike her usual easy motion. One of Christophe’s hands lost its grip; he snatched at the hard rope and righted himself. More spray spattered cold across his face. He peered ahead. “Two points port!”
The brig fired her bow-chasers again, but they were only two guns; she could not turn broadside-on without losing way, and Jeanne was already almost out of range.
The jib was shaking, trying to come across. LeBrun roared from the quarterdeck, “Get that jib out!” One of the men shoved at it with a boat-hook; it re-filled, and the Jeanne steadied. Another thump of gunfire behind them. He ignored it. They had more immediate danger than a few ill-aimed cannon-balls. He snatched a glance to starboard where the eye of whirlpool usually lay. The tide was on the turn. The sea was menacing, with strong little currents racing here and there, and standing waves. They were level with it now.
How long had they been in this passage? Five minutes, ten? If they were lucky they’d have ten minutes more before they were lost.
They were out of the lee of the southern island’s cliffs now, and the breeze strengthened and steadied. The men holding the jib out brought the boat-hook in with a grunt and a clatter as they dropped it; they had been holding it at arms’ length. The foresail bellied out, and the murmur of the forefoot cutting through the water picked up again. Their uneasy passage, fraught with the sense of a monster lurking just below, eased a little. The Jeanne heeled over, and picked up speed.
She was out of the monster’s reach.
“God be thanked!” This was LeBrun’s voice, restored to good humour, and the men cheered. Christophe loosed his grim hold on the ratlines and considered the journey back to the deck. He would wait a few minutes more before attempting it, perhaps, when his hands had unlocked their grip.
The voice of the whirlpool woke again. The tide was flowing.
Behind them, Arrow’s guns spoke out. One ball skipped past them on the starboard quarter; the other raised a fountain to port, but the brig was trapped on the other side of the great whirlpool – ten minutes behind the privateer was six hours too late. She could not follow until the next slack-tide.
Christophe craned round and, as the mainsail swung further out, saw she had turned broadside-on at last. He clung, waiting for the salvo. Sure enough, it came, the smoke billowing out from her side before the sound reached them. A lucky ball smacked through the mizzen-sail; the others fell just short.
That was the end of it. Across the white swirl of water the Arrow turned away, to who knew what disgrace at the British Admiralty. But as he looked one last time through the telescope, he saw the golden-haired figure at the foremast head make a bow in his direction. He could tell from the manner of it that the man was grinning; and involuntarily, raised a hand in return salute.