As Lieutenant Travers began his dash across the courtyard, a cannon boomed in the distance. Just as he reached the tower doorway, a ball sped over the wall of the fort and smashed into the stonework on his right, throwing out a chip of stone to slash across his face. He staggered for a moment and then threw the door open and went through.
Major James looked up from his desk, a haggard look on his wide, florid face. “You’re bleeding, Travers,” he commented quietly.
“Yes, sir,” said Travers, pulling out a handkerchief to ineffectually staunch the blood.
“Any news from the semaphore?”
“Yes, sir, in a way. The Frenchies have captured the nearest station on the mainland and sent us a very rude message. At least, I assume it’s rude. There were several French words I didn’t recognise.”
“The same thing, then? They want us to lay down our arms and yield up the fort?”
“More than that, sir. They claim to have captured London itself. They… they say that King George has surrendered England to Boney and that the war is lost.” Travers stopped for a moment, his young face bleak as he continued to hold the kerchief to his face. “Well, that’s what they claim,” he ended lamely, without much hope.
Major James grimaced. “It may be true, alas. Their flagship sent a signal this morning. They want to send their Admiral across to parley. If what you say is true, they may even have a signed order from the King, directing us to surrender.”
He stared gloomily out of the narrow slit window towards the bay. In the distance, the cannons of the French fleet continued to boom, and nearer to hand, there was a continual crash and shake as the cannonballs arrived. Every so often, a man screamed.
Much less frequently, there was a louder boom as the fort replied in kind.
“Why aren’t we shooting back more often, damn it? We can’t be short of powder, surely? Have we lost so many gun crew?”
“No, sir…” Travers suddenly stopped, his face turning a greenish shade of white.
“Sit down, man, before you fall down.”
Travers sank gratefully into the wooden chair in front of the Major’s desk.
“No, sir, though it’s true we have lost several crews. There’s still plenty of powder in the magazine, sir, as you would expect. It’s cannonballs we’re short of now. I have as many men as I can shaping stone, but it’s a slow process. And of course, we can’t throw stone balls as far and hard as iron shot. They tend to shatter if we use too much powder.”
Major James drummed his fingers on the desk. “Hmmm. If you’re well enough, Lieutenant, send Captain Smithers in to see me.”
Travers shook his head sadly. “Sir, I’m afraid that the Captain was killed about an hour ago by a Frenchie ball.”
“Damn. He was a good man. All right then.” He reached into his desk drawer and drew out a heavy bunch of keys. “Are you recovered? Come with me, then.”
He used the keys to open the door behind his desk, and beckoned to Travers, who followed, a little wobbly.
They entered a corridor leading deeper into the fort. Reaching a set of stairs, the two men descended. On the first floor they passed, soldiers were busy rolling barrels of black powder to be passed up onto the battlements and the ranks of cannon there. There was plenty of powder still, but their supplies of iron shot had recently been heavily depleted to supply the ships of the fleet.
Fort Redoubtable had been established on this island as a supply post for the British Navy and Marine Corps. The Admiralty had thought it impregnable, commanding the heights above the harbour with ranks of cannon mounted behind its thick stone walls. In case of a siege, it had always been assumed that the Navy could easily relieve it. But that had been before the war went bad. The loss of Nelson and half the British fleet at the Battle of the Nile had been a disaster, and from then on things had gone from bad to worse.
The two men descended another two flights of steps, to the lowest level of the castle. They went around several corners and then the Major used his keys again to let them into a large store-room, filled with wooden crates.
“Lieutenant, I’m about to show you something that only myself and Captain Smithers knew the truth about. The war may be lost, but I’m damned if I’m going to go quietly. I’ll refuse to see the French Admiral, damn his frog-eating guts. I’m not going to see what is in this room fall into their hands so easily. They can have it, all right, by God they can have it. But they won’t like it!”
He picked up a crowbar and pried the top off of one of the crates. A layer of lead sheeting covered the contents. Major James peeled it back and Travers gave a shout of astonishment. A glorious gleam of gold shone out, filling the dark room with colour. The crate was full of gold bars.
“It’s from the Mint. When the French invaded and started making progress towards London, it was decided to ship half the Mint’s store of gold abroad to our colony in Canada, top secret, of course. This is as far as it got before we were cut off.” He looked at Travers with a smile. “What do you think?”
Travers sat down dazedly on one of the crates, suddenly understanding. “Yes, yes…”
The fort’s cannons started firing again that afternoon. Major James and Travers stood behind the ramparts of the fort as ball after ball, yellow and gleaming, flew out out towards the French flagship, which had pulled incautiously close to the shore. Heavier even than lead, they wrought terrible damage, and within minutes the flagship was keeling over, masts torn away and huge holes in its side.
“We’re still doomed, of course,” said the Major reflectively, as the golden barrage continued. “But by God, what a way to go out!”
by David R Grigg
(C) Copyright David R Grigg 2012. All rights reserved.