I had a bad fright that morning. I wouldn't have left the house at all on such a special day if the man at Seldon's hadn't phoned to say they had a piece I might be interested in. It was an oval plate, bone china, frilled at the edges, slightly curved at the sides, pale cream in colour, with a central medallion enclosing his profile in dark blue. There was an inscription of the same colour in slightly worn cursive, running round the upper half of the medallion: Hero of the Nile. They had used the De Vaere profile made for Wedgwood in the summer of 1798. Nothing very remarkable about it. But of course I agreed to buy it. It bore his image. It was seldom indeed I could resist that.
I was on my way back home with it, back to Belsize Park. It was a raw day and the sky was darkly overcast. Nevertheless, I decided to walk as far as Knightsbridge for the sake of the exercise. I had time to spare--or so I thought.
As I was crossing Pont Street it started to rain, not very heavily. The platform in the Underground was crowded and became steadily more so while I waited. There was a silence among the people there, silence of waiting--they were resigned. I began to feel the first twinges of panic. Then an Asian voice on the loudspeaker: a delay on the line due to security checks at Gloucester Road station.
It was thirteen minutes to twelve. Imagine my feelings. This was February the fourteenth; it was the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Horatio's first great disobedience, the day he became an angel. On this day, at 12:50 p.m.--just over an hour's time--his ship, the Captain,
went into close action. And here was I among this mute herd, sweating despite the cold, a good two miles from my table and my models. The ships were not even set out.
It mattered so much to get the time right, therein lay the whole meaning--how else could I keep my life parallel with his? Before my father died--he died last April--I fought out this battle wherever I could: on my bed, on the floor, one freezing day in the shed behind the house. We never missed, year after year we broke the line at ten minutes to one. Now I had the basement all to myself. The thought that I might fail the appointment now was unendurable, it made me feel sick.
There was no time to be lost. I struggled back to the surface along with numbers of others who had made the same decision. I was feeling distinctly unwell by now; my breath came with difficulty and there was the usual suffusion of blood at the temples, obscuring my vision, making me feel hemmed-in. It was still raining and there were no free taxis anywhere near the tube, nor outside Harrods. I had to walk some way towards Hyde Park Corner before I found one, and even then I was lucky; the previous fare was alighting as I came up.
I gave the address and sat back and concentrated on keeping my face composed and my breathing inaudible. Closing the eyes has always helped me to cope with anxiety, but now I waited two minutes by my watch before allowing myself the luxury. Timing is the key to control, and control is the key to concealment. The driver, if he glanced in his mirror, would think it strange if his passenger were dozing too soon.
My father was a master of concealment; he kept it up so well that nobody knew just when he died, nobody registered the precise moment.
We made it with twelve minutes to spare. I was still gasping a little as I went down to the basement. I did not allow myself to be sidetracked by considerations of where among the shelves and cabinets to put my new acquisition; such a decision would involve extensive rearrangement, it could easily have taken the whole afternoon, in these last months I had got steadily slower. I simply left the plate, still in its damp wrapping, on the floor and went straight through to my operations room and began setting out the ships, the Spanish first in their two loose groups, 9 in the van, 18 in the rear, these last headed by de Córdoba in his great flagship, the Santissima Trinidad,
4 decks, 136 guns, the most powerful wooden warship ever built. One of the first models I made; I was fourteen, home from school for the summer holidays. Odourless now, the ship in my hands, but still seeming to bear the spiritous, heady scents of its making--glue, paint, freshly cut shavings. The shed had a smell too, dust and hot creosote and the rank weeds that grew against the boards outside. Smells are more intense for solitude and remembered more intensely, as every lonely person knows. Sounds too. But I wasn't lonely, I had him.
Now for the English fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jervis in the Victory,
Horatio's death-ship at Trafalgar eight years later--eight years, eight months, and one week. In contrast to the disorderly Spanish, our ships are sailing in impeccable close order, fifteen warships in perfect line-ahead formation, approaching from the south at right angles, making for the fatal gap in the enemy fleet, two feet wide on my table, roughly seven miles in actual fact.
The sight of them now, disposed for battle, gunports open and cannon run out, quite restored my calm. In full press of sail, with their flags and pennants and painted hulls, their figureheads picked out in gold and vermillion, they made a fine show. How much care and devotion I lavished on those models, those sloops and frigates and ships of the line, what pride I took in them. Before my father died I had to keep them in cardboard boxes in my bedroom, together with all the other Nelson memorabilia I had collected over the years. My room was full of boxes, you couldn't get the door more than half open, you had to edge your way in. Now my ships had for their manoeuvres the whole surface of the billiard table that had always been a feature of the basement. My brother Monty and I used to play on it sometimes, before he left. I had covered it with dark blue baize and had a sheet of glass fitted exactly over it. In the light of the lamp overhead--no daylight ever entered that room?the surface glinted like dark water and reflected the colours of the ships.
Eight minutes to go. Since first light these stately, deadly vessels have been slowly drawing closer together, approaching in a fashion apparently leisurely the thunder and carnage of a close encounter. Incongruous, and to me entirely fascinating, this dreamlike slowness. Consider the ferocious fire power of those ships, their capacity for destruction, more devastating than anything known before, on sea or land. Jervis is taking well over a thousand cannon into action with him. Now they are 25 miles west of the Portuguese headland of St. Vincent, 150 miles northwest of Cadiz, for which port the Spanish are running with a fair wind.
They would avoid the engagement if they could, but they cannot be allowed to, they must be intercepted. A heavy weight of responsibility lies on Jervis's shoulders today. The French Revolutionary War has reached a crucial phase. The Dutch fleet has joined with the French at Brest. One attempt to invade Ireland has already been made. Admiral Lord Bridport's Channel Fleet has been driven back to England by bad weather and forced to abandon the blockade of Brest. Only this same bad weather has so far prevented an enemy break-out and an unopposed Irish landing. If the Spanish are allowed to join them, the odds will become impossible. Not only have the English been forced to quit the Mediterranean--a vital sphere of influence--but the whole of continental Europe is now dominated by the armies of France. Drained by the subsidies she has been obliged to pay to keep her allies in the field, her trade routes curtailed, her merchantmen harassed by privateers, England is on the verge of bankruptcy. Ireland is simmering with rebellion. There are rumours of mutiny in the ships of the Royal Navy. It is indeed true, what Admiral Jervis is heard to remark as the weather brightens: "A victory is very essential to England at this moment."
Words that are remembered, recorded, famous words. But this brightening weather has revealed an awesome discrepancy in the strength of the opposing fleets. Jervis has fifteen sail of the line. Six of them are three-deckers, but only the Victory
and the Britannia
have as many as a hundred guns. All the rest, including Horatio's, are two-deck ships with seventy-four guns, the standard warship of the Royal Navy at that time. In addition Jervis has four frigates, faster than the line ships, essential for scouting and intelligence. I set them out now, on a diagonal, to windward of the English line. This is the force with which Jervis is proposing to engage the Spanish Grand Fleet, twenty-seven ships of the line, ten frigates, and a brig. Six of the Spanish three-deckers are carrying 112 guns, and there is the mighty Santissima Trinidad
with 136. Altogether they have twice the fire power of the English. But there are compensating factors. The Spanish have put to sea in haste, they are undermanned, their officers are inexperienced.
Everything is in place. It is fourteen minutes to one. One hour and four minutes previously, while I was panicking at Knightsbridge, Jervis had given a bold and unconventional signal. On this occasion he cannot follow the rigid procedures laid down by the Admiralty in London for the conduct of sea battles, procedures that have not changed in a hundred years: You lay alongside, preserve strict in-line formation, and pound away in a duel of broadsides until the enemy is crippled or surrenders or runs. Jervis cannot do this because his force is too inferior; he would be overwhelmed. So he has given the order to put on press of sail and break through the gap in the enemy formation. It is the only tactic possible. Once through, the English fleet can attack to windward, concentrating its fire on the eighteen ships of the rear, disabling them before the van can make the turn into the wind and come to their aid.
A perfect day for sea fighting--calm, with a light breeze, no rolling to disturb the calculation of the gunners. I check that the English ships are in correct order of sail as they pass through the enemy, Troubridge leading the van in the Culloden,
Collingwood bringing up the rear in the Excellent.
Third from the rear is Horatio in the Captain,
flying the Broad Pennant; he is a commodore now--since the previous March.
So they pass through. The Spanish spine is severed. But now Jervis blunders. He cannot altogether break from his conditioning, free himself from the rigid code of line-ahead formation. He hoists his signal: once through to the west of the Spanish, the fleet is to tack in succession and bear down on them. In succession. No sir, wrong. It should have been simultaneously. For fifteen ships to make the turn, one after the other, each waiting till the one ahead has completed the manouevre, and then to reform in line--this will take too long, the advantage will be lost.
But of course they obey, they are bred to obedience. Here they are now, in a wide inverted V on the ocean as they begin to execute the manouevre, in perfect formation still, the Culloden still leading. But the Spanish have the wind. De Córdoba has understood, he alters course northwards, he means to bear over the wind and unite his fleet. Then he can fight or run as he chooses, and he will have time to do it; only the first six English ships have so far completed the turn and they have not yet come up with the Spanish, they are still out of range.
One man sees this, and that man is Horatio Nelson. It is now 12:50 p.m. Without a second's hesitation, disregarding his commander's signal, he veers the Captain
away from the wind, he breaks the line. The audacity of it, the impetuous logic! To recognize absolute necessity and act on that instant of recognition. Now again, in this silent room, as I send the Captain into the attack and her colours glint on the dark surface, I feel a constriction in the throat and my heart beats faster at the dash and defiance of it. The move has brought us, at a stroke, across the bows of at least seven Spanish ships, among them the huge Santissima Trinidad,
the San Josef,
the Salvador del Mundo,
and the San Nicolas,
these four alone possessing 440 guns against Horatio's 74.
At the moment that he swung away from the wind and broke the line, risking the outcome of the battle and his whole career on this one throw, at that moment, in his thirty-ninth year, Horatio became an angel. He entered a different sphere. I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew. This is a pure form of energy, and Horatio was winged with it. All the same, angels are not complete, they need their counterparts, the dark needs the bright, the hidden needs the open, and vice versa. Sometimes they meet and recognize each other. Sometimes, as with Horatio and me, the pairing occurs over spaces of time or distance. He became a bright angel on February 14, 1797, during the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. I became his dark twin on September 9, 1997, when I too broke the line.
I had no presentiment of this on that February afternoon, as I moved my model ships about on their glass ocean. Since my father's death I had been experiencing bouts of gloom--not sorrow--and at times a sort of excited restlessness that made it difficult for me to keep still. And I had run into a difficult patch in the book I was writing, The Making of a Hero
. I had got bogged down in the events of June 1799 in Naples and Horatio's part in them. This book had been going on for more than five years, ever since December 1991. I started it on Boxing Day, the anniversary of his mother's death. The Naples business was worrying me; I could not leap over it. Progress was slow; lately, in fact, there hadn't been any. I kept retreating, rewriting pieces of his earlier life. It was for this reason that I began to feel slightly uneasy now, as I went on with the battle. Because at this point I had to bring Troubridge into the action, and at the time I did not much care to dwell on Troubridge, Horatio's brother officer and friend, closely associated with him in this battle but also in the treatment, two years later, of the Jacobin rebels in Naples--the business that was holding me up with my book.
Certainly there is no doubt of his fighting spirit. Horatio is not left long to fight alone. He is joined by Troubridge in the Culloden,
the leading English ship, which has now completed the turn ordered by Jervis and come within range. For nearly an hour these two exchange broadsides with the Dons,
superior discipline and gunnery making up for inferiority of armament. Now here is the gallant Blenheim
coming up to give them a respite, passing between them and the enemy, pouring fire as she goes. The Culloden
is crippled, she falls astern. Collingwood ranges up in the Excellent,
last ship of the line. He passes within ten feet of the San Nicolas,
eighty guns, and blasts her in masterly fashion with two broadsides in succession.
Ten feet. The length of this table. That would be about it. Almost jumping distance. These towering ships, fighting so close, hardly more than the length of a man between them, launching their thunderous fire, shuddering from stem to stern with the repeated recoil of the guns--the English gun crews could deliver a broadside every seventy-five seconds. Dismemberment and maiming inflicted almost within range of an embrace. Hard even for a landsman of the time, the notion of such closeness, such promiscuous intimacy of destruction. How much more so for us now, with our concept of war as distant erasure, a button touched, a figure or a thousand figures obliterated on a screen.
The close-quarter fighting gives Horatio his second great triumph of the day. The San Nicolas,
reeling from Collingwood's fire, falls foul of her compatriot, the huge San Josef,
three decks, 112 guns. The two Spanish ships, both badly damaged, are inextricably locked together. I set them together here, side by side, to the windward of Horatio. His own ship by now is completely disabled. She has lost her fore topmast; her wheel has been shot away; neither sail nor rigging is left. She is incapable of fighting in line, incapable of giving chase.
Again Horatio demonstrates the promptness of genius. The genius of a hero lies in his extreme readiness to action--which is not the same as rashness. He lays his ship aboard the starboard quarter of the San Nicolas.
His sprit sail passes over the Spaniard's poop and locks in her mizzen shrouds. Three ships tangled together now; here they are, side by side. Horatio calls for a boarding party. Short of stature--he is only five feet six inches--slight of frame, with one eye more or less useless to him after the wound he suffered in the Corsican campaign two and a half years before, newly fledged angel with bright sword in hand, he leads the way, passing from the fore chains of his own ship into the quarter gallery of the San Nicolas.
In the exchange of fire that follows, the Spanish commander is mortally wounded. The Spaniards surrender, but while Horatio is receiving the officers' swords, his party is fired upon. Seven English seamen are killed in this fusillade. Where is it coming from? From above and beyond, from the stern gallery of the San Josef,
still helplessly tangled aloft. Without a flicker of hesitation, Horatio orders his mariners to return the enemy fire, stations sentinels at the hatchway to keep the enemy belowdecks, and charges on. He will board an enemy ship from the deck of another already boarded and taken!
His friend Berry is at hand, helping him into the main chains, keeping beside him during the headlong scramble from ship to ship. But on board the San Josef
there is no resistance. A Spanish officer hails from the quarterdeck to say that she surrenders. The flag captain, on bended knee, presents his sword. The admiral is dying of wounds below. With his own ship disabled, Horatio has captured two enemy ships, both more heavily armed, using one as a stepping stone to the other. An action without parallel in the annals of naval history.
Luck, some might say--the right man in the right place at the right time. But angels make their own luck. Otherwise, how can it be explained that it was always he who broke the mold? Collingwood was equally well placed to veer out of line and throw himself across the bows of the Spanish. Not a question of courage or skill; Collingwood had plenty of both. But he stayed in line.
Late afternoon; the light is failing. Jervis has only twelve ships now that are capable of fighting. The Spanish have been defeated, four of their ships have been taken. It is time to disengage. Gradually the fire ceases, the fleets separate, the English stand for Lagos, the Spanish for Cadiz. After this terrible local storm, these hours of thunder and slaughter, peace settles down, the ocean comes to herself again and swallows the corpses and the drifting spars.
I sat on there, after the battle. I have never been at sea, except twice on the cross-Channel ferry. That was a long time ago, before my illness. No, I am his land shadow. I have been abroad only once since then, just once in twenty years. That was when I went with my father to Tenerife to see the place where Horatio lost his right arm.
Excerpted from Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth. Copyright © 1999 by Barry Unsworth. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.