A flame snaked across the cracked flagstones and as it sizzled along the fuse to the top of the powder keg, the Captain and four of his crew covered their faces with their arms. Each gulped a lungful of air, their bodies braced. There was a blast of heat. Then orange flames momentarily lit the dungeon. The impact of the explosion flung the men back against the wall, scalding the breath from their bodies. A shower of debris and dust billowed around them, stinging their throats and nostrils. With hearts pounding louder than a blacksmith’s anvil, they waited, peering through the clearing smoke. The thick oak door hung crookedly on its hinges. Behind it in the black pit that was the prisoner’s cell cries of terror and coughing was silenced by a shout.
‘We are friends. You have been freed. There is little time to get away before the garrison will be called out. Follow us!’
Men with their features hidden beneath matted beards and sores staggered out. Most wore some degree of naval attire, which had been reduced to rags. Despite the cold all had been stripped of their jackets and boots, the officers as dishevelled as the deck hands. A few civilians also staggered out with their silk or fine cambric shirts in tatters around bruised and whip lashed bodies; the colour of their torn breeches indistinguishable after months of laying on filthy straw and rats’ droppings. They were a motley group weakened by dysentery and starvation rations.
‘There is no time to loose.’ The captain ordered. He was shocked at their condition. Some seemed barely able to walk. He could not tell if any were wounded or incapacitated by infirmity or age. There were more prisoners than he expected and it was his duty to save not only the English prisoners of war, but also any Frenchman who faced the guillotine because of his birth. From his hasty inspection some could barely stand and were unlikely to make the short dash through the port to the long boat.
‘God praise you!’ Voices greeted them.
‘Save your breath for what lies ahead.’ the captain warned, ‘The greatest
danger is still to be faced before you are aboard my ship.’
The strongest had pushed their way to the front and these were given the
spare daggers and cudgels the Captain’s men had been able to carry.
‘Help each the wounded where you can, but once the fighting starts it will be
every man for himself.’ It was not a decision the Captain wanted to make but
too much depended on them getting quickly away or he could lose his ship
and many more lives would be in peril.
Two of his men helped support the wound. The Captain seeing the terrified face of a youth not much older than is eldest son, who was clinging to the wall for support, hooked the lad over his shoulder. With his sword raised, he stepped over the two bodies of the guards, each with their throats cut. Their greatest danger was the steps to the entrance of the lockup. If the sentries came hurtling down them both prisoners and rescuers would be trapped. They could all die.
The Captain breathed easier that no alarm had so far been raised, but the explosion would have alerted the guards on the city walls. They would have only a few minutes to escape unless his accomplice Monsieur Grande had created a diversion in the town.
Halfway up the steps he smelt the first taint of smoke in the air. As he flung open the door to the courtyard an orange glow lit the sky behind the quay. The thud of running men and shouts raised in panic were headed away from them. The fire that had been set was next to the grain store and if that burnt town, the citizens would endure a winter facing starvation.
‘Keep to the shadows!’ The captain warned the prisoners. He stood at the doorway urging those lagging behind to catch up with the others. He also glanced anxiously along the quay. Lord Grande must not be far behind them. There were only two long boats to row out to their brigantine and he could not afford to wait long for his accomplice to board. Yet without him the rescue would have failed.
‘Hurry my friend,’ he groaned as he sped after the prisoners.
The outcry and frenzy in the town had drawn many of the sailors from the quayside taverns, but there would still be some placed on watch on each vessel. In times of war every furtive move was regarded as suspicious.
‘Halt. Who goes there?’ A command was barked out in French. ‘Halt or I shoot!’
Up ahead there was the sound of a scuffle and of a shot being fired. The Captain could just make out the first of the prisoners climbing down the stone quay steps to a long boat. Others were fighting.
This could be disastrous. The Captain felt his blood freeze. From out of a tavern a dozen soldiers appeared, half of them carrying muskets. Their officer had raised his sword aloft and was rallying more to his side.
The Captain drew his own pistol and fired at the officer, who went down, shot through an eye socket.
‘At them men! For England and King George!’ The Captain shouted. He was now in the thick of the skirmish and laying about him with his sword. He was slowed by the weight of the youth who also hampered his movements.
A volley of musket fire brought down more prisoners but then it would take the soldiers over a minute to reload and some prisoners charged them wielding cudgels against muskets now used as clubs.
There was little moonlight but the glow from the fire not only lit up the sky it was reflected in the water of the harbour. Only fifty yards separated them from the long boat.
‘Give me the boy.’ A white-haired prisoner took the youth from the captain.
No longer restricted he was now able to defend the backs of the stragglers. The fight was frantic and those left on the quay were outnumbered. Desperation reignited their failing energy when the stamp of booted feet from the direction of the town meant reinforcements. But for which side? Had Lord Grande made it to the quay, or was it more French?
There was no way of telling. It was difficult to discern friend from foe, except for those soldier’s in French uniform who made easy targets. Several figures writhed or lay prone on the ground. Two more fell slain by the Captain’s sword. The cries of the wounded mixed with the pungent smell of sweat and blood.
A prisoner had fallen near the Captain, a bayonet having laid open his cheek. A ragged companion hauled the injured prisoner to his feet and half dragged and half supported him to the steps. Still the Captain defended their backs, fighting off two men at once. The French had been gaining ground, but fortune held in that no alarm bell had been rung. That would have alerted the fort on the headland and they would be bombarded by cannon fire when their ship sailed out of the harbour.
There was a splash of oars warning that the first of the long boats was pulling away. They had only moments to stop the French raising the alarm. ‘Show these French dogs how an Englishman fights!’ The welcome rallying cry of Lord Grande further along the quay, fired the Captain’s blood. He defended the top of the steps as his men fled to the long boat. Lord Grande was finally at his side, but he was breathing hard, his face streaked with blood and smoke.
‘Go my friend,’ the Captain ordered.
There was sweat in his eyes and his sword ran with blood as he run through the last of the enemy and followed Lord Grande into the long boat.
Their was no time to recover their breath, the oarsmen pulling hard to reach the shelter of the first hull that would shield them from further fire from the quay. But the muskets had fallen quiet.
A glance back at the town showed several of the storehouses on fire. All available men were needed to fight the blaze. The white shape of Pegasus, the figurehead, reared above their heads and dark hull of the brigantine rose up out of the water. Whilst the men climbed up the rope ladders thrown over the side, the flap of unfurling canvas and creak of the anchor being raised resounded around them. The ship was already moving by the time the Captain swung his long legs onto the deck.
He raised his eyes to the headland where the dark silhouette of the fort was another danger between them and the open sea.
There was a deathly hush.
‘And did they escape?’ A young voice demanded.
‘Of course they did, numbskull,’ Nathan Loveday taunted. ‘Otherwise Papa would not be telling the story.’
‘I knew the Captain was you, Papa,’ Joel shouted and gave his older brother an indignant shove.
‘And Lord Grande? Was that Long Tom,’ Papa?’ Nathan asked.
‘Lord Gregory Kilmarthen to you,’ Captain Adam Loveday laughed. ‘We could not have rescued the English sailors without him.’
‘But did the fort fire on Pegasus?’ Joel persisted. ‘How many battles have you fought in her?’
‘Those stories are for another night.’
‘One more story, Papa. How many times did you fight the French and how many émigrés did you rescue?’
‘No more questions, Joel.’ His mother stood by the bedroom door. ‘You should be asleep by now.’
‘Now you heed your, Mama,’ Adam warned, ‘Or she might order me to walk the plank for keeping you up so late. Good night.’
When Senara shortly joined him in the drawing room he broke through another moment of reverie to smile at her.
‘You miss those days, do you not, my love?’ Senara always knew what he had been thinking.
‘I am older now and have more responsibilities at home.’
‘And if this truce with France does not hold, where would your heart lie then?’
He drew her down onto his lap and kissed her. ‘My heart is always with you and my family here at Boscabel.’
‘Until Long Tom or government duty calls,’ she returned, unconvinced that he could give up the call for adventure when it beckoned.