Read The Gathering Storm Online
Authors: Peter Smalley
Also by Peter Smalley
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Published by Century 2009
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Copyright © Peter Smalley 2009
Peter Smalley has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of
the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or
dead, is entirely coincidental
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
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The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
An horrid stillness first invades the ear,
And in that silence we the tempest fear.
in the navy, a light nimble ship, built for
the purpose of sailing swiftly. These vessels mount
from 20 to 50 guns, and are esteemed excellent
Dictionary of the Marine
As ever for Clytie, my heart's companion
Captain James Hayter, RN, raised his fowling piece, aimed,
and pulled the trigger. The flint snapped home in the pan,
there was the flash of a spark, then nothing. The fat woodpigeon
soared up, wings clapping, and disappeared into the
trees across the meadow.
Captain Hayter lowered the gun, and examined the lock
'Damp powder, old fellow.' To his dog. 'That is what comes
of pushing too eagerly through foliage after rain, d'y'see.
Without putting the lock under my arm. Carelessness, Tam.'
The dog looked at him, head tilted on one side at the
sound of its name.
The dog's tongue lolled as if in agreement.
'No pigeon pie, that's what.' A breath, and he shouldered
the gun, and adjusted the strap of the empty game bag. 'But
we've come far enough today, and walked off our fat. Hey?'
The dog watched him, waiting and alert, one ear cocked,
the other half-cocked.
'Time to go home, I think.' He set off to the south, along
the winding path at the edge of the meadow. Sharp sunlight
gleamed on the metal furniture of the gun, and along the
barrel. The dog tarried a moment, having heard the word
'home' and become reluctant.
'Come on, Tam.'
And now the dog bounded after him. Cloud shadow
followed them across the field, hiding the sun, darkening
the copse on the hill above. Presently a shower of rain
came sweeping and billowing, and the man and his dog
became indistinct as they reached the stream and the line
of low trees on the far side.
When they reached Birch Cottage, Captain Hayter's home,
about thirty minutes after, both were very wet. James crossed
the stable yard and went in at the rear of the house, left the
dog in the scullery, and put his gun and bag in the dark little
parlour beyond the kitchen that he used as his gunroom. He
took off his wet coat, shook his wet hat, and now turned his
head to the kitchen with a frown. The kitchen was empty.
The whole house had a curious atmosphere of emptiness,
and quietude. He strode out into the passage, glanced again
into the kitchen, then went through into the living quarters.
He glanced up the staircase, then went into the library,
opening the door wide. The fire had not been lighted. The
room was empty. He went through into the drawing room,
and found that empty. Turning out of the room:
From the scullery the aggrieved barking of the dog,
echoing through the lower part of the house. And the subdued
tick ... tock of the long-case clock in the library. No other
He stood a moment in frowning puzzlement, then ran
quickly up the stairs, gripping the banister to lift himself
along, just as he would have gripped the shrouds of a mast
to aid his going aloft. As he came to the top of the staircase:
'Cathy! Are you there?'
No answer. And now he was beginning to be anxious, a
little. A muffled voice, from the bedroom at the far end of
the passage. The boy's room. A man's voice. Fear gripped
his guts, and dug in its claws. He hurried there, to the door
of the room, and saw that it was ajar.
He went in. Catherine stood at the foot of the boy's bed,
and Dr Harkness, the new local practitioner, stood at the
head, bending over the small form of the boy, who lay with
his head on the pillow. The doctor adjusted the pillow, and
under the rustling movement was the rapid shallow rasping
of the boy's breath.
'Oh, James ...' Catherine's terrified, distraught face as she
turned to him. He moved to her.
'What is the matter?' As he took her hand, dreading the
'Perhaps it would be best, Mr Hayter, if you was not to
come farther into the room.' Dr Harkness, holding up a
cautionary hand. 'I have already said so to Mrs Hayter.' A
brief glance, and he returned his attention to the boy.
'Not come in?' The truth flooding in on James even as
he asked the question. 'Is it a fever ... ?'
'Aye, it is. Typhus.' Plain, matter-of-fact. 'He must be kept
isolated. We must make a quarantine of this room, this
quarter of the house entire.'
'There can be no doubt ... ?'
'None. Y'will observe the petechial eruptions upon his
James leaned, peering at his son, and saw on his neck and
on the upper part of his shoulder visible above the covers,
small roseate eruptions on the sweat-sheened flesh. The claws
in his guts dug deep, and he bent nearer.
'Nay, do not venture too close, if y'please.' The doctor's
black coat hung over the back of the chair by the bed, and
his black instrument case stood on the seat. The doctor's
spectacles, perched precisely halfway down his nose, gave his
face a particular severity of expression, even as he sought to
be calm and factual in his pronouncements. He was a young
man of twenty-eight or -nine, who looked a dozen years
older. His hair was already grey at the temples, and his forehead
bore a chevron of deep lines.
'I had no notion he was ill,' said James. 'I did not see him
this morning, in course, before I went riding over to talk to
Mr Brimley about his hunting meet.' Mr Brimley was their
nearest neighbour, across the hill. 'I was up and about and
gone so early. And then straightway when I returned ...' as
if explaining things to himself as much as to Catherine and
the doctor '... I went to examine some papers, and then I
was gone again with my gun and the dog. It did not cross
my mind that he—'
'He could not eat anything, poor little boy ...' Cathy,
tears now on her face. 'He had seemed listless a little, all
these last days, but I had thought it was only a spring chill.
And then today he could not rise from his bed after his rest.
Oh, could not I soothe him, doctor? Could not I cradle his
head a moment ... ?'
'Nay.' Not curtly. 'He cannot be aided by that, just at
present.' He did not say the word quarantine again, but James
heard it under the other words.
'Where is Tabitha?' he thought to ask now. 'There was
no one at all in the downstair part of the house when I came
in. Where are the other maidservants?'
'I have advised members of your staff to remain in their
own quarters for the moment. I must make arrangements.'
Dr Harkness wiped the boy's forehead with a wet
cloth, and wrung out the cloth in a basin. Catherine began
'But, Doctor, if you are close by him, and will take the
risk of fever, why cannot I, his mother—'
Dr Harkness cut short her pleas with not quite harsh
authority and directness. Laying the cloth on the edge of
the basin he said: 'Madam, I am a physician. I think your
husband will understand me when I say that it is my duty
to take such risk, and I hope that you will understand me,
'I thank you for your kindness in warning me, Doctor, but
I think you must know that I have already had such proximate
contact with my child all the morning that I cannot be in any
greater danger now, if I sit close to him, and bathe his forehead
and hold his hand. Is not that so?'
'Nay, it ain't, I fear.' With the same directness. 'The
petechial eruptions have appeared only in the past hour. You
will do very well to keep clear, now. Both of ye.' A glance
'Who will care for him, poor little boy?' Catherine's tears
again spilled. 'He must be nursed.'
'There is a young woman in the village that has already
been exposed, when her younger brothers took ill. She has
shown no sign of fever, when she tended to them as their
'Have they returned to health?'
'Alas – no.'
'They are dead?' Aghast.
'Neither child survived, but their sister is hale. She—'
'She will never come into this house while I draw breath.'
Catherine drew herself up, lifting her head, and looked at
Dr Harkness very direct. 'I thank you again for all your
kindness, Doctor, and for your advice. I shall nurse my own
'Madam, is that really—' began the doctor.
'Cathy, I do not think—' began James.
'I shall nurse my own son!' Fiercely, staring straight ahead.
'Do you hear!'
And the thing was settled. Both men knew that it was, and
that they had better say nothing further. The doctor
permitted himself a very small sigh, and shrugged into his
coat. James stood back from the bed to let him pass, then
followed him along the passage and down the stairs, leaving
Catherine alone with the ailing boy.
'What treatment should my wife apply, d'y'think?' James
asked Dr Harkness as they came to the bottom of the stair.
'If she is to stay by his side, what physic should she give to
him? And when? I mean, how often should she—'
'There is very little may be done for the boy. I should
advise prayer, was I a priest. I am not.'
'There is nothing
can be done for him?' James, his
voice very low in spite of the vehemence of his question.
'We are practical men, I think, sir. We know what life is.
Your wife, his mother, will be by the boy's side. If he has
strength enough to resist and fight the disease, then the fever
will break. If he has not ...'
'He is going to die.' Flatly.
'Nay, I have not said so.'
'But that is what you mean, ain't it, Doctor?'
'While ever there is life there is hope.' Sincerely.
'Damnation to pieties! Tell me the truth!' His voice
'If the boy lives through the night, then we may hope for
a gain on the morrow.'
'That is all you can say ... ?' His voice again very low.
Dr Harkness looked James in the eye, made to touch his
arm, and then hesitated – for fear of contaminating him –
and withdrew his hand. A moment, and:
'I hope with all my heart that your boy may live.'
James met the doctor's honest gaze, read in it what he
already knew, and nodded. The doctor fastened a last button
on his coat.
'If there is any change this evening, or during the night,
do not hesitate to send word. I shall come at once.'
'You are very kind.'
'And I must iterate – no one of your household, other
than your wife, is to venture into that part of the house
where the boy lies.'
'Very good, Doctor. Thank you.'
He saw the doctor to the door, and his waiting gig. The
rain had ceased and evening light lay angled across the
paved forecourt as the doctor climbed into his gig and
drove away, the sound of the horse's hooves fading on the
In the days following, James went over and over in his mind
all of the events leading to the culmination. The papers he
had paused to examine when he returned from Mr Brimley's
house, and later in the morning, papers he had read and
reread in the library, and had then sat long in answering,
because he had thought himself obliged to take great trouble
with his reply. The walk he had embarked upon thereafter,
taking with him a wedge of pie and a flask, his gun, his game
bag, and the dog Tam. The afternoon he had wasted, largely
in sheltering from showers of rain, in pursuit of elusive woodpigeons.
His late return, thoroughly wet and disappointed,
and caught up in his thoughts. Could he have done different,
on that day? Should he have? And what of the days preceding?
Had he been inattentive, when Catherine remarked on the
boy's less than energetic demeanour?
'Rondo is a little out of sorts, I think.'
'Is he? Is he? Then he had better go out into the fresh
air, hey?' As he searched for and found his riding crop.
'I wonder if there is not a draught in his room? The
'Do not fret about him, my love. He is a boy, and boys
are hearty creatures. I shall say a word to Albert, and we'll
have him up on Danny Boy this afternoon. Now, where the
deuce have I put my gloves?'
But he had forgotten to speak to the stable lad, had forgotten
about the pony Danny Boy, and his son, in pondering his
own future. Should he have accepted his new commission, after
all? Should he have accepted the ship-sloop
merely to attain the rank of master and commander? When
Captain Rennie, his erstwhile commander and friend, had
wanted James to return with him into HMS
frigate as his first? Should not he write voicing his doubts
to Their Lordships, and request further time to come to
his decision? Good heaven, no. Certainly Their Lordships
would look very unfavourable on a fellow that ... And so
his thoughts had dashed hither and thither in his head,
until the letter had come – the sealed, official, absolute and
... you, the said Master & Commander so appointed,
shall proceed forthwith to Portsmouth, there to Receive
from the port admiral's hand your Warrant; thence to
His Majesty's Portsmouth Dockyard, where you will go
aboard the said Vessel, His Majesty's ship-sloop
, 22 guns, & duly commission her, & assume
your duty of Command, and with all Despatch make
her ready for the sea ...
His doubts had arisen from something that had happened
during his previous commission – his first as commander
– in HMS
, cutter. A thing that had haunted him
ever since. He had been obliged, in most pressing and
distressing circumstances, to shoot dead a horribly injured
man. It was a very shocking thing to have had to undertake,
and he knew that his people had been shocked. He had
seen it in their eyes. And yet he had had to do it, there
had been no alternative if the poor wretch was to be delivered
from his agony. He had fired the shot, and at once
thrown the pistol into the sea.
'God forgive me.' He had said it then, and an hundred
times since, as he rode his horse, as he shaved himself in the
glass in the morning, as he strode to the top of the hill
behind the house – at any moment when he was alone with