From Long Road Home, the final book in the Eleanor Anson trilogy
We have been at sea for twelve days, and we are within a few days of reaching Marseilles when the two British frigates emerge out of a fog bank early one morning.
Montojo swears in Spanish. I don’t have to be fluent in the language to know what he is saying. This is the first and probably the only time in my life that I will not be happy to see the Royal Navy.
‘I shall not try to fight them, Mrs Howard,’ Montojo says to me. ‘If I cannot evade them, Alhambra will become their prize.’
‘Capitán, no! She is your livelihood.’
‘So I should want to see her full of holes? No, muchacha; I would rather give her up. Besides, you would have me fight your countrymen? What would they do to us when they found two Inglés aboard?’
‘I have no idea,’ I acknowledge sadly. I have no doubt that he is right. ‘I am so sorry, Montojo. If you had not agreed to take Ned and me to Marseilles, you would have been safe in a convoy.’
‘Bah,’ he says. ‘I never sail with a convoy. I have always considered myself too small to need an escort. I see I was wrong.’
We press on sail, trying to evade the frigates. It is taking us away from the coast of France, and my heart sinks as we reverse course. But regardless of the outcome, our arrival in Lyon is about to be delayed.
Ned stands beside me at the rail and frowns. ‘What is happening, Mama? Why are we running from the British ships?’
‘You know that Britain is at war with Spain, Ned.’
‘Yes… That’s why the Spanish ships fought with Sir’s ship.’
I nod. ‘We are on a Spanish merchant ship, Ned. Because our countries are at war, if the British ships can capture Capitán Montojo’s ship, they can claim her as a prize.’
‘Are they going to shoot at us?’ he asks. I cannot tell if he is anxious or merely curious.
‘I doubt it. They may fire at us to tell us to stop, but they do not want to hit us.’
‘Good,’ he says quietly. ‘I don’t want any more men to get hurt, Mama.’
We manage to evade the two frigates for about a few hours, but then Alhambra misses stays on a larboard tack. The chase is over. As the frigates come up from the windward, Montojo prepares to surrender his ship.
The larger of the two British ships fires a single shot across Alhambra’s bow, which is hardly necessary, since she is not moving. It is more a signal of intent than anything else.
We watch the boat containing the British prize crew approaching. ‘Will we have to get off, Mama? Do we have to go to the British ships?’ my son asks anxiously.
‘Why, sweetheart?’ I begin to ask, but Ned has taken off running. He darts down the ladder below decks. I start after him, but the prize crew is boarding and I do not want to give any of them a wrong impression. I am not particularly worried for Ned’s safety; I am only concerned that I do not know if he is upset, or why.
The British crew prepares go below to search the hold as their commanding officer requests Montojo’s papers. I step forward. ‘Please; my son is below. He is only three years old,’ I say to the marine.
‘We will take care, madam,’ he tells me. If he is surprised that I am English, he gives no indication. The officer gestures to me, beckoning me to come speak to him. ‘You are a passenger?’ he asks, when I comply. He is a midshipman, not yet a lieutenant, and probably not much more than seventeen years old.
My God; they get younger and younger. I would not be surprised to find a fourteen-year-old coxswain in the launch. ‘Yes. Mrs John Howard, of Gibraltar. My son is travelling with me.’
‘Where were you bound, Mrs Howard?’
Before I can reply, Ned reappears on deck, with Pincushion clasped tightly against his chest. He walks directly up to the midshipman and says, ‘Please, sir, if I must leave him, will you make sure that nothing happens to my cat?’ There are tears brimming in his eyes.
The mid looks nonplussed. He doubtless did not expect to be confronted with a tearful British child and a kitten when he was told to take command of this Spanish merchant vessel. ‘Erm, of course,’ he stammers.
The marine returns from below. ‘She has no cargo,’ he announces. ‘Nothing in her hold but ballast.’
The young man turns to Montojo. ‘No cargo?’ he repeats.
I catch Montojo’s eye. ‘No cargo?’ I mouth.
Montojo shrugs. ‘We are on a humanitarian mission, estimado señor. We are taking this lady to be reunited with her husband. If you had captured us on our return trip, perhaps it might have been different.’
The British frigates’ prize has just become something of a disappointment. I can see that the midshipman would be inclined to cut her loose, but he does not have the authority. ‘I will consult with my captain,’ he says to Montojo. ‘You are still in the possession of His Britannic Majesty’s navy. My men will remain aboard. Madam, you and your son will come with me, please.’
It is stated as a request, but it is in reality an order. Ned refuses to let go of Pincushion, so he, the kitten, and I find ourselves in the launch with the midshipman. The coxswain is not fourteen, I am relieved to see.
Of course, when you first met Nelson, you thought he was much younger than he actually was, I remind myself. But then, so did most people.
Aboard HMS Solebay, Ned and I are provided with tea in the stern cabin, whilst I explain our presence on the Spanish merchantman. The captain admires Pincushion, and Ned feels comfortable enough to relinquish the kitten to him temporarily. Pincushion purrs in the man’s lap during our discussion.
‘Captain Montojo is a friend,’ I explain. ‘My husband is a political prisoner in France, and our government’s efforts to have him released have been unsuccessful. He has been held captive for nearly a year.’
‘This Montojo was taking you to France?’ the frigate captain asks.
‘Yes. To Marseilles. My husband was in Lyon, according to the last letter I received from him. Had I known I would be participating in this interview, I would have brought the letter. It is in my baggage on Alhambra.’
The captain frowns. ‘I am sorry, madam, but do you know what you may encounter in France?’
‘I have some idea, Captain. Ned and I travelled through France last year as refugees from Naples. Had I but known… my husband was being held in Lyon at the time that I was at Arles.’
‘Arles is some 170 miles south of Lyon, Mrs Howard.’
‘It is far closer than Gibraltar, Captain.’ I carefully quell the impatience that wants to creep into my voice. ‘If you require proof of the veracity of my story, you may contact Colonel Aubrey St Clair in Gibraltar.’
‘I do not doubt you, madam,’ he says, although his expression suggests otherwise. ‘But it goes against my best judgment to deliver my countrymen into the hands of our enemy.’
‘Then please send me back to Alhambra and let Montojo do it.’ The captain no doubt thinks that I am insane, but he can’t win this contest. I have experience staring down naval officers. ‘Captain, if the French want to take me and my son prisoner, we are prepared to let them do it. Just as long as they reunite me with John.’
He sighs. ‘It is not for me to deter you, Mrs Howard,’ he says. ‘I travelled in France before the war, before madness overcame that country. I have no idea what it is like there now, but it was pleasant once… if you are determined to go to Lyon, I cannot stop you.’
I capture the man’s gaze and hold it. ‘Does that mean that you will release Montojo?’
He offers me a thin smile. ‘Easy come, easy go,’ he says.