The combined fleet of Turks and Egyptians, in numbers greater than that which Nelson faced at Trafalgar, approaches the vulnerable Greek island of Samos to seek retribution for their humiliating defeat of August 1824. The seafaring patriots of Hydra, Spetses and Psara employ the most terrifying of weapons, fireships, against the Ottoman armada in the greatest, the most climactic battle fought at sea in the Greek war of independence.
Captain Patrick O’Connor leads HMS Surprise and her battle-weary crew of tired veterans once more into the fray to support their Greek brothers-in-arms. Doctor Simon Ferguson, traumatised by an intense summer of conflict and casualties, struggles valiantly to cope with the rising and bloody burden of killed and wounded shipmates.
The author, Alan Lawrence, pays literary homage to the stories and the genius of Patrick O’Brian, and brings HMS Surprise alive once more in a tale which illuminates the intolerable strain endured by the fighting man.
In this, my second tome, I have continued the story of actual historical events directly from the end of my first book: that one concluded with the first battle to preserve the Greek island of Samos from Turk invasion on 17th August 1824. This story describes the great sea battle of 10th September in the Bay of Gerontas which finally thwarted Ottoman efforts to capture Samos; it ends with the hurricane which struck Britain on 22nd November.
In this second, factually-based story in my own series I have endeavoured to endow it with a trifle more of Patrick O’Brian’s essential and complex essence; I have strived to attain his rich eloquence, customarily replete with diverse linguistic faux pas and rife with humorous conversational and other ambiguities together with his remarkable ability to fascinate with an infinity of detail. The reader will be the judge of whether I have succeeded.
There are a great many books about historical conflicts, both factual and fiction. As an extreme generalisation, it is true to say that few of them examine in any depth the deleterious effects on the menat the sharp end: those determined, brave souls who experience close combat, many of whom become wounded in doing so or experience the loss of dear comrades. These are men (and women) who, for the most part, must and do continue to persevere with considerable bravery throughout the very worst of life’s experiences, both during and after the traumatic events they encounter. These stories, though fiction, strives to touch upon this oft neglected issue of warfare and the painful burdens of the enduring aftermath.
This book is dedicated to all those who served in the 1982 war in the South Atlantic, to everyone on both sides of that bleak, wintry conflict.
In the evening, Pat and Duncan returned to the Metaxata house and before supper went about their customary tour to visit the wounded; the numbers so great that, with the exception of Mower, they were all accommodated within four marquees set up within the garden. The men were recovering well and were in good heart.
At 8 p.m. the families, with Simon and Marston, settled in the dining room; the atmosphere for the convivial meal was relaxed, the ambience warm and cosy, the table and all those present illuminated by the flickering, cheerful glow of candles. The ladies busied about bringing the food and the girls served wine. Mower had joined them for the first time from his sick bed. He was a popular figure within the household, particularly with the ladies. His still boyish enthusiasms, despite his present wounds, charmed all of them. Shot and wounded in both legs and in one arm, as well as his chest taking two tiny canister shot splinters during the August battle to defend Samos, Simon’s expertise and many hours of care had saved all his limbs. He was recovering well and was pampered by both the ladies and the girls of the house. Propped at the table with bountiful cushions all about his chair, his food was passed to him by one or other of the ladies, as he invariably tired quickly at the onset of every evening. Despite his frailty he remained in good heart. He looked across the table to a morose Simon who was once more become withdrawn, who had picked without interest at his food throughout the meal; his face maintaining an expression of gloom, of deep discontent. Even the divine aroma of the coffee appearing after supper had concluded did not shift Simon from his desolation; for his attention, half-hearted as it was, had drifted away. The gathering as a whole was silent in that particular moment and from the far end of the table Mower cried out, ‘Doctor Ferguson, a glass with you.’
Simon, brought back to the present from deep and painful reflections by the mention of his name and his elbow nudged by Marston, looked up; he nodded gloomily, almost reluctantly it seemed to the onlookers; he lifted his glass but said nothing.
‘We are but fragile souls,’ Mower persevered. All at the table were somewhat alerted by the words and all looked to him and thence to Simon’s reaction; a hush descended upon the room, expectant silence. ‘So flimsy in body as I myself know too well. What do you say, Doctor?’ said Mower. Simon only nodded again. ‘Will I read you my poem, written whilst here?’ the lieutenant pressed. A general nodding of heads and a murmur of assent arose from all present save for Simon. His voice dropping to little more than a murmur, eyes all about the table fixated upon him, Mower resumed, ‘At one time, when still aboard Surprise, I had thought I would not recover and certainly feared for my limbs, but you have saved them for me, and I am most grateful, most grateful indeed; and it seems a timely moment to thank you… I do so with all my heart… Thank you, Doctor Ferguson.’ The hushed silence all round the table lingered only for the tiniest fragment of time whilst the unexpected words registered with everyone, the so obviously heartfelt words sinking in, when the table broke into clamorous uproar: loud clapping and shouts of ‘hear hear,’ coming from Pat, Duncan and Marston. The ladies and girls, accustomed as they were to long hours attending the many wounded men and receiving plentiful thanks for their care, found themselves deeply affected by the poignancy of Mower’s words and could not hold back the flood tide of emotion; their smiles swiftly becoming tears followed by sobbing; loud and unrestrained. Both Pat and Duncan slapped Simon on his back vigorously, though he did not speak; his reply was only another nod of his head and a wipe of his eye. Eventually quietude returned, all present looking again to Mower, and he resumed, speaking very quietly, his exertions plainly taxing him still, ‘It is a tale of hope, of perseverance in adversity, and that seems – to my mind – whilst here all these weeks and unable to shift from my sick bed a great comfort, and so appropriate to our particular circumstances; would you not agree, Doctor Ferguson?’
‘I would so,’ Simon mumbled his first words of the evening; a few moments passed and he whispered very quietly, ‘Pray read your poem, Mr Mower,’ whilst continuing to wipe his eyes.
‘Caitlin, dear; will you care to pass my notebook there? Thankee.’ Mower propped the book on the table, leafing through it with his operable hand, his wounded arm limp by his side. He wedged the page place with his spoon, took a large draught of his wine; he looked once more about the table; all persons present expectant, silent; the mood of the table now quite atmospheric, all aware of a sense of something indefinable, an anticipation of something special, so personal about to be revealed to them, their heartfelt respect accorded to the author. In the settled mood and restored silence Mower began, the words spoken very quietly:
‘I went out aboard the boat, Because a desire was in my head; And spurned the love I left behind, Though she pleaded we should wed; And I took the shilling of the King, whilst great guns were flaming out; I fought with Nelson at Trafalgar, And caught a splinter flying about.’
‘I did so, did ye know,’ Mower exclaimed; ‘It was a grenade thrown on the deck of Bellerophon.’ He resumed,
‘When I was laid upon the deck, I waited long but no help came; The ship aflame and become a wreck, A familiar voice called out my name: It had become my long lost love, With comfort and sweet names, Who held me in her arms and cried, Then faded in the smoke and flames.
Though I am old with voyaging, Through endless seas to far off lands, I wonder oft if she will wait, For my embrace, my anxious hands; To join together in our home town, And share in love with me our fate, The silver years as we grow old, The golden years to Heaven’s gate.’
Uproar ensued once more: hands beating upon the table, shouts of congratulation abounding from all, until after a full minute the hush returned and Simon became aware that all were staring at him. He blinked to clear the copious tears welling up in his eyes, his mind flooded with the most painful thoughts of his own deceased wife, her loss even now oft leaving him in a cold desolation which he constantly strived to set firmly aside. He wiped his cheeks with his hand and he looked to Mower to whom he spoke in little more than a whisper, his voice cracking with emotion, ‘I commend you, a splendid work, and I thank you for reading such to me. I have found myself these past weeks greatly dismayed, so many losses have we suffered; indeed, I had begun to flounder and to sink into that so bitter trough of despond.’ The room was absolutely silent, his friends captivated to the exclusion of all else as Simon continued to reveal the most personal of his feelings. ‘My spirits were failing; so much so that it has seemed these past weeks akin to the fading and flickering final vestiges of the candle in the darkness all about me, yet I could not bring myself to speak of it; I could see no remedy, and I did not care to inflict my wretched despond upon anyone else. There it is, I have always found it difficult to countenance elocution of the ramblings of the unsettled mind, but conceivably I have been in error all these years in that matter.’ There was a general murmuring of sympathy from the gathering, the ladies now unashamedly crying again, and Simon, Marston’s hand on his shoulder, his voice strengthening a little, resumed, ‘I do hope so very much that you will all forgive me, and I will endeavour to emerge from that desolation, that loneliness, and in striving to do so it will aid me to think of the so timely sentiments of your poem, Mr Mower: hope, that most precious of thoughts. I am greatly indebted to you. Thank you kindly. God bless you all.’,