Drumbeat is the second of the Nicholas Ramage novels by Dudley Pope. It picks up where Ramage left off, with Nicholas Ramage commanding the cutter HMS Kathleen and en route to Gibraltar from Corsica. It ends with the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, February 14, 1797.
Major spoilers follow.
It is October 12, 1796 and Ramage has left Corsica for Gibraltar, sailing under orders from Commodore Horatio Nelson. to safely deliver Marchesa di Volterra and her cousin, Count Pitti, there. Because of prowling French frigates and the possibility that the Spanish fleet will sortie from Cadiz, Ramage hugs the African coast in order to avoid contact.
On October 30, Kathleen encounters a Spanish frigate that has been dismasted in a sudden squall. Ramage feels compelled by the unstated expectations of the Marchesa and his crew to attempt to take the much larger ship as a prize.
Through a clever stratagem the Spanish captain is compelled to surrender and Kathleen narrowly avoids being taken as a prize by the crew of the Spanish frigate in a late night surprise uprising. After towing the Spanish frigate for a few days, Kathleen encounters two British frigates who relieve Ramage of responsibility for the Marchesa as well as taking the Spanish prisoners on board. Ramage is left on his own to bring his prize to port.
Unfortunately, one morning the fog lifts to find Kathleen and her prize in the middle of the Spanish fleet and Ramage and his crew are taken prisoner. Ramage decides to attempt to avoid capture in an effort to find out the plans of the Spanish fleet. To this end, he uses a forged Protection identifying himself as an American. The Spanish separate all foreign born sailors from the rest of the Kathleen’s crew and attempt to enlist them in the Spanish navy. When they demur they are paroled in Cartagena.
Ramage and his companions manage to discover the sailing date of the Spanish fleet from Cartagena as well as its destination. They steal a small ship and escape to Gibraltar. There they find Kathleen was recaptured by British frigates as she was en route to a Spanish port and her crew has been freed.
The governor of Gibraltar sends Ramage out to search for Admiral Sir John Jervis and his fleet. Ramage finds them and is posted as a signaling cutter for Commodore Nelson.
Though the British are outnumbered, Jervis brings the Spanish to battle on favorable terms but the reduced visibility caused by the volume of gunsmoke prevents Jervis from seeing how the battle is unfolding and the chance he is missing. Nelson does see the opportunity and disobeys orders to capture three of the four Spanish ships taken. Kathleen plays a key role in the battle but is lost in the process.
The novel closes with Ramage on his way home to await further employment.