It is December 1825 and financial turmoil is afflicting the country. Many provincial banks are failing, and the Bank of England itself faces imminent insolvency after the run on private banks has cleaned out all its cash reserves.
With only a very few days left before national panic sets in, the bankruptcy of the Bank sure to bring down the government, Captain Patrick O’Connor is called back to duty, his first mission being to rescue the country from the looming catastrophe.
Afflicted by ghastly nightmares, tormented by disturbing memories of the bloodshed and horrors experienced whilst fighting the Turk oppressors of Greece, the stalwarts of the barky struggle to summon the courage and determination to return once more to the fray as the Admiralty tasks them with delivering vital supplies to succour the starving population of the besieged Greek town of Messalonghi.
The great guns come roaring back into action in another exciting tale of the continuing voyages of HMS SURPRISE!
“An engrossing tale of the effects of the horror of war, a story of loyalty forged in the heat of battle… and the tumultuous course of true love! I recommend this book unreservedly!” Eileen Reynolds, London
The western Greek town of Messalonghi (variously Missolonghi and Messolonghi) first faced an unsuccessful Ottoman siege in December of 1822, it was followed by another in the months September to November of 1823, the besiegers giving up because of inadequate resupply arrangements for their military forces at the time of the advent of winter. The precursor to this second siege was a bombardment and attempt to capture the island town of Anatolico (modern day Aitolikon) to the north-west of Messolonghi; however, the Turks failed to capture the island.
The town of Messolonghi, it might be argued, was to some degree strategically located: it was situated on the north side of the approach to the Gulf of Patras through which seaborne access was afforded to Nauplia, the temporary wartime capital for the provisional Greek government. In such a location it could always conceivably present the opportunity for Greek nautical brigands to interdict Turk traffic bound for the port of Patras on the south side of the Gulf (in Turk hands). However, Messalonghi’s considerable disadvantage was (and still is) that it possesses no deepwater anchorage, it has no port, and the shallow saltwater marshes and lagoons all about the town offer water to a depth of little more than a metre, and that in only the smallest areas.
The narrow access channel (for small boats, typically flat-bottom fishing boats) to the town’s beaches from the deeper waters of the Gulf was guarded in 1826 by the outlier island of Vasiladi, which the Greeks had fortified with a disparate collection of artillery pieces. Their eventual escape from that island through the cold shallows was the most desperate affair.
The Turks returned to try for the third time to capture Messalonghi in April 1825, beginning a siege which would endure for a year until the calamitous end in April 1826.
Four bells rang out as Pat was still standing at the stern rail, the low sun throwing a lingering and radiant yellow glow from behind Cephalonia for its final few minutes of reassuring presence. He watched with a rare fascination as the orb dipped below the distant horizon, far beyond the island, to leave a splendid afterglow. He stared down at the eight ship’s boats in tow within the broad, white, curved wake as “Surprise” slowly came round in another of her tacks to the east, the weak wind falling away to little more than the gentlest of breeze, every shade of red radiating in the skies astern in a splendid panorama of colours even as the air temperature was falling noticeably in just a few minutes. For the first time in the day he sensed the feeling of being hungry; his stomach’s rejection of his dinner, no doubt, being the cause. He nodded to Pickering, on watch, murmured to the lieutenant that no lights were to be displayed; he emphasised “none at all“, and he slowly paced towards and down the steps, entering the coach, the air within much cooler than on the deck, the cabin dimly lit by a solitary lamp.
‘Well, is ’ee ready for supper?’ asked Murphy in a most offhand tone of voice, Pat taking only mild exception. The steward swiftly stepped aside before Pat could remonstrate with him as Simon and Duncan unexpectedly entered the cabin from the coach after a perfunctory knock on the door.
‘What, pray tell, has Wilkins prepared?’ asked a tired Pat of Murphy, his words spoken without the slightest degree of anticipation in his voice even as his eyes, sore after an exposed day in the wind, drifted with repeated flickering of his eyelids to look to his unannounced visitors.
‘Well, he has fresh-baked Greek bread…’ Murphy’s attention too wandered towards Simon and Duncan; people generally did not burst uninvited into the cabin, and his own curiosity was piqued.
‘That is splendid, no doubt, but man does not live by his daily bread alone,’ declared a hungry Pat, in a sarcastic voice, ‘I read that somewhere in the Bible…’ Murphy muttered something scarcely audible, wholly unintelligible but seeming decidedly rude under his breath. ‘What did you say, Murphy?’ asked Pat in irritated voice.
‘Well, never a word, sorr!’ came the untruthful reply with feigned indignance.
‘That is very good,’ Pat glared at his steward, ‘Doubtless you are minded that it is better to keep your mouth shut and appear insolent than to open it and remove all doubt!’ The first stirrings of hunger registering, Pat spoke up loudly, ‘Now, I am amazing short set. What is coming with the bread?’
‘’tis a brace of roast chickens… all be cooking right proper… sorr… roasting,’ mumbled a scowling Murphy in the most affronted tone of voice.
‘That will serve admirably,’ barked Pat, pleased, ‘and there will be plenty enough for my two friends here.’ He looked to Simon and Duncan with a smile, ‘You do care to join me, gentlemen?’ He did not wait for any answer but turned again to his steward, ‘Please to bring two bottles of red wine, Murphy. I find I am in the way for a generous tint; that uncommonly good Portuguese will serve very well. And… Murphy… shake a leg! You may care to run!’
‘Yes sorr!’ The steward frowned with a look that he wished might kill, and he left in exceptional haste, darting a quizzical glance to the visitors in passing.
‘Naturally,’ declared Pat with a first hint of a smile, the irritation of the minor altercation with his steward diminishing as the pleasure of supper with his two closest friends settled upon him, his mood lifting with a small frisson of anticipation, ‘I am always delighted when you both attend my table… as you well know… but – tell – is there some particular occasion today to which I owe the great honour, eh?’
‘Aye… that is to say… “no“,’ declared Duncan, ‘The pleasure is all mine… and Simon’s, no doubt. It is the rare event when we have found time, the three of us, to take a wee morsel of supper together… and with Simon and I both going ashore we… we…’
‘We determined to seize the moment, to beg your hospitality,’ interjected Simon. ‘It is in our thinking to enjoy a precious hour or two together before we return to… to the possible fray, when such an opportunity conceivably might be denied to us for some considerable time… until our… “our undertaking” is completed.’
Pat cheered as recollections of enjoyable past meals with his great friends settled upon him, the reassuring thought so much in contrast to his uncomfortable apprehensions of all day and much before that, ‘That is a first class notion, so it is. Please, do take a seat. We have plentiful time before we properly begin this… this caper. Mr Prosser is minded that… with the dying of the wind at sunset… we will barely shift for the next few hours and, I dare say, we will not make Vasiladi until well after midnight. He expects something of a northerly breeze to blow in a few hours time… which we may profit by… but until then we are in the doldrums. Ah, here is Murphy with the wine.’
The first bottle was entirely poured by the steward into three large glass tumblers when Duncan spoke up, ‘Murphy, I didnae get even a wee scrap for dinner and I am fair clemmed, mortal hungry… horses ain’t in it. Would ye care to bring the bread directly? I can wait for the blessed chicken – if it will be cooking for some time. Thankee.’
Murphy nodded, hastening away before Pat might inflict his sharp tongue upon him again. He returned within three minutes, a noticeable degree of trepidation upon him, bearing the smallest loaf ever to grace the cabin upon the breadboard. Six keen eyes fastened upon it, all weighing up how it might go round three hungry men, all wondering whether there might be more forthcoming. ‘Murphy,’ declared Pat eventually, the steward sensing the unspoken degree of disappointment about the table, ‘Ain’t you heard that old saying… that famous ancient proverb?’ Nothing offered in reply other than a frown, and Pat resumed, “‘Two breads are better than one!’” With that he burst into laughter, which his friends were pleased to see. Duncan followed with gusto, Simon smiling, while Murphy merely scowled. Pat slapped his thigh, ‘Two breads are better than one! Hah! Hah! What do you say to that, Murphy, eh?’
‘Well, sorr,’ a disgruntled Murphy was tired of being the butt of Pat’s acerbic condemnation, Pat’s wit being only slightly less excoriating, ‘I might say something like the old saying from home… from Galway… You will know it, sorr… “May the most you wish for be the least you get!’” With that said he could not refrain from his own loud guffaw. The briefest moment of thought and Duncan followed with his own uproarious great laugh, and he clapped his hands in delight; even Simon laughed out loud.
Pat stared for only a half-second longer before laughing himself, ‘Ha ha, very good, Murphy… something from home – and that is ever a blessing – very good indeed. Now, cut along to the galley and…’ to Murphy’s rapidly disappearing form, the steward already at the door, ‘… do count your chickens before they are despatched! Hah! Hah! All at the table burst into fresh laughter once more, a very audible but indecipherable curse heard from Murphy in the coach. ‘AND MURPHY,’ Pat shouted in full voice before the cabin door might swing shut, ‘DO REMEMBER, THERE’S NO REST FOR THE WICKED! Hah! Hah!’
Simon, in the dim light within the room, mopped his brow, moist in the foetid air; he wiped his bloody hands on his apron, sighed the deepest sigh of relief and stepped back from his table. ‘I venture we may hold some small hope that he might survive,’ he murmured to no one in particular. An exceedingly difficult amputation of a leg above the knee, the patient’s leg macerated into a pulped, fleshy mess and his thigh shattered by a grapeshot strike, the operation had exercised Simon’s skills to the utmost for fifteen enervated minutes of absolute concentration. ‘Perhaps another pot of coffee would be timely now,’ he declared to Pascoe, in attendance. He looked all about the makeshift operating room, his spirits sinking immediately as he stared at the small number of distressed supplicants admitted to await his urgent attentions, sounds of discomfort, of pain, audible from them. ‘Marston, we are sore pressed for time, would you be so kind as to call the next patient?’
‘Of course, but before I do, before we are engaged once more, may I congratulate you on saving the life of that last unfortunate. I had, myself, believed that there was no prospect for him at all, his wound being so severe. Your work, dear colleague, was exemplary… it was the very finest of surgical endeavours.’
‘One man, he was but one man,’ Simon sighed, fatigue and despond weighing heavy on his mind, for the operation had been difficult beyond his expectations, ‘… and it was but a modicum of success amidst the dying of hundreds of others in this vile place.’ He spat into the bloody bucket, ‘What does my work, the paltry endeavours of a single man, count for in this bloody conflagration, eh?’
Marston, much taken aback, stared at his friend, ‘My dear Ferguson… forgive me, but it may serve us well if I speak of the teachings of those faithful of another persuasion… sadly none of such ilk live in this place any longer. I speak of the Koran. I no longer recall the verse, but the words and their significance I have carried with me since ever the first time I read them.’
‘I beg your pardon… for my own ungracious words. Please go on,’ whispered Simon, mollified and a little embarrassed.
‘Whoever saves a life, it shall be as if he had saved the lives of all mankind.’
‘That is… is the most noble sentiment,’ Simon nodded, blinking away the tears forming within his sore eyes, ‘Indeed it is splendid… and I thank you for it. I thank you for the reminder… of what we are doing here, I do; I am exceedingly grateful to you, I am so. Thank you, Marston.’
‘I will call for the next patient,’ said the chaplain quietly.
‘Pascoe,’ Simon sighed, ‘would there be a piece of biscuit for a hungry man?’