Bleakness . . . bleakness on every hand. The North Atlantic was as vast, and grey, and desolate as it was the morning before the Lord said, “Let there be land.” A slow, chill rain sullenly fell, pattering as light as cat-feet on the fresh-scrubbed decks, a rain so light that it could be mistaken for heavy dew shaken off the masts and sails, and the miles of rope rigging by a listless West-Sou’west wind, a wind that had a definite late autumn nip to it.
The seas had moderated from a half-gale past midnight, and were now only slowly heaving, the wave-sets between crests now nearly twice the overall length of the frigate that lay fetched-to into that wind, her bows aimed at Halifax, from which she had departed three weeks before.
The sun was up there in the overcast . . . somewhere, smothered by a drab pall that hung like an oxided pewter bowl above the frigate, stretching from one horizon to the other, with darker banks of clouds to the East, where last night’s gale had gone. There were, here and there, promising thinner, lighter patches to North and South, definitely to the Westward. Perhaps by the next sunrise, there would be clear weather. It had been a week since they had seen a clear sky for the noonday reckoning by sextant. Their position had been guessed by the miles run from noon to noon, the compass course steered, with an educated guess of the magnetic deviation rate, the farther they had sailed East’rd, perhaps even a dabble in the arcane arts.
For all Capt. Alan Lewrie, RN, knew, his Sailing Master, Mr. Winwood, that humourlessly dour, prim, and ponderously long-suffering fellow, had been taking the auspicious auguries of seagull guts down in the dark of the orlop. However he did it, Winwood had lifted his nose just after sunrise, and had requested that the ship be fetched-to for trial casts of the deep-sea lead line.
After the insistent icy fury of the half gale they’d suffered, fetching-to to relative stillness had sounded like a fine idea, and an opportunity to dry things out below, relight the galley fires, and cook a hot breakfast for the weary, banged-about, and chilblained crew for the first time in days. And brew coffee . . . most especially coffee!
Mr. Winwood now stood on the starboard gangway amidships, with two of his Quartermasters, Motte and Austen, amid a horde of curious, expectant sailors who had no duties to perform while HMS Proteus was cocked up to windward and only making a slight half-knot sternway; men of the duty watch, off-duty men wakened by the sudden stillness and the sounds and slack motion of an idling hull, found cause to gather round below in the waist and watch, or help with the hoisting winch; on-duty men on the gangway itself casually joshed and japed in soft tones with those poor fellows selected to go overside to tend the deep-sea plumb, who had to wear the chest-deep harsh canvas hawse-breeches and leggings with the cork-soled feet on them, and work on the main-chains platform just feet from the curling, chilly sea, tend the safety lines that kept their mates from being plucked away or drenched by an errant roll or a rogue wave.
Even so, the men overside had to be changed every quarter-hour, or they’d be frozen stiff, and be hauled back in-board drenched to the skin, their hands numb and fish-belly white from guiding the lead-line and counting the knots as it was retrieved from the icy waters.
Think I can hear their teeth chatterin’ from here, Lewrie told himself as he took off his cocked hat, his battered second-best, with the gilt lace gone mouldy green, and tucked it under his left arm. He gave his scalp a good fingernail scrubbing, ran spread fingers through his thick, slightly curling mid-brown hair as a “Welsh comb,” and took another look about.
Long-practiced, long-trained eyes swept over the sails, weather braces, and rigging, finding nothing amiss. The wind on his cheeks as he cocked his head left and right . . . steady, and the ship’s head was in no danger of falling off to leeward of a sudden, for the two hands tending the large double-wheel helm were studiously alert, oblivious to anything outside their duties. Grey-blue eyes swept aloft, again; the commissioning pendant pointed aft and nearly East’rd, curling lazy, sinuous snake-crawls; the lookouts posted at the cross-trees of upper masts were keeping their eyes out-board on the horizon; on their feet, not slouching, and would sing out if they had anything to report. But, they didn’t, of course. This patch of the North Atlantic—and just which part of it they still had to discover—was yawningly empty of anything. Not a rock, not a wave-breaking shoal, not even a lone seabird that might have presaged their awaited landfall. Surprisingly, given the longitude they estimated their frigate had attained, there wasn’t even a hint of another vessel’s sail, either. As close as they supposed they’d come to the British Isles, there should have been dozens of merchantmen, fishing boats, by now. Unless, Capt. Alan Lewrie cynically imagined, they’d missed it altogether, and were somewhere to the West of Scandinavia, South of the Shetlands or Orkneys! For it was certainly cold enough for those climes.
Closer-to, Lewrie was pleased to note the steel-greyness of the sea, the milk-white curlings of the wavetops. The sea was scending no more than five or six feet, now, was no longer green with disturbance, and didn’t smell like fresh fish any longer. Craning over the ship’s larboard, windward, bulwarks near the shrouds of the mizen-mast, Lewrie took a moment to be satisfied, even a bit pleased, as the longish-set waves’ troughs sank beneath his frigate’s waterline and bared a bright glint of spanking-new coppering on her quickwork. The Halifax yard had done them proud, with so many naval stores warehoused, and too few of His Majesty’s ships now based at Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in need of them. The North American Station’s labourers only got seasonal work these days, when the two-deckers from the Caribbean fled north to avoid hurricane season, and had seemed happy to have work. There was no drydock at Halifax, but there had been strong tides and good beaches on which to careen Proteus high-and-dry, then fire and scrape the weed and marine growths off her bottom, replace rotten or sea-wormed outerplanking that even the Bosun or the Ship’s Carpenter, Mr. Garroway, had not suspected, then paper, felt, linseed, paint, and copper her, afresh.
Flight from the threat of prosecution, it seemed, could have its beneficial moments!
“Top up yer coffee, sir?” Lewrie’s cabin-servant, Aspinall, intruded from his inboard side. The tow-headed fellow had mounted to the quarterdeck from the galley up forward, holding a black, battered two-gallon pot by its bail, with a towel-wrapped hand beneath. His breath steamed in the chilly air nigh as lustily as the pot’s spout . . . though nowhere near as enticing a scent as the hot coffee’s, Lewrie cynically thought.
“Aye, that’d be handsome,” Lewrie quickly rejoined with a faint smile of pleasure, holding out his empty mug.
“A right nippy mornin’, sir, fer certain,” Aspinall said, with a long-established and casual familiarity. There were no secrets ’twixt employer and servant, master or slave, mighty captain or the fellow who quietly managed his life belowdecks, and any brusque, stand-offish, and aloof “dignity” on Lewrie’s part would have been pointless, by then, and pretentiously cruel, to boot.
“Mmm, good and hot!” Lewrie happily exclaimed after one sip.
It was a continual disappointment to go ashore, even to the best establishments in London where the coffee-house had been king for years on end, and get a tepid (tiny but expensive!) cup of semi-opaque gnat’s piss. Aboard ship, it came from the galley stove still half-boiling, as stout and black as the strongest Irish brew.
Captain’s second but to God at sea, Lewrie wryly told himself as he took another welcome sip; and I ordain coffee fit t’wake the dead!
“Nothin’ yet, sir?” Aspinall felt fit to ask, casting a glance at the activity on the starboard gangway.
“No, not yet,” Lewrie told him, grinning once more a trifle. “I assure you, when it happens, you can’t miss hearing it. I see Mister Catterall licking his chops. Best top up the others, too, lad.”
“Aye, sir,” Aspinall cheerfully replied, then turned and walked forward to the others gathered near the cross-deck hammock nettings by the break of the quarterdeck overlooking the ship’s waist, forward of the helm, and the compass binnacle cabinet and traverse board. He held out the pot in silent offering, gaining glad looks from the rest; the First Officer, Lt. Anthony Langlie, a handsome young man with what women said was romantically dark and curly hair. With a month or more between shearings, or washings, though, and with a week’s worth of whiskers, those ladies might not exactly swoon over him, any longer.
Lt. Catterall, the Second Officer, their wryly waggish and sarcastic bear of a fellow, was licking his lips in avid expectation, his battered tin mug held out in two mittened hands like a dockside mendicant whining for alms. Wiry and slim Lt. Adair, long-ago a Midshipman when Proteus had first commissioned at Chatham, a less-demonstrative and better-educated young Scottish gentleman, waited his turn with a good grace, taking the time to thank Aspinall for his services. With Mr. Winwood and Midshipman Grace busy on the gangway, there was more than plenty for their resident lout, the thatch-haired and permanently unkempt little Bog-Irish Midshipman Larkin, and their new-come but much more salted “gift,” Midshipman D’arcy Gamble, who had come aboard at the behest of Vice-Adm. Sir Hyde Parker back in the early spring after Lewrie, and Proteus, had gotten him a pot of Spanish silver from those French Creole pirates in Barataria Bay on the wild coast of Spanish Louisiana.
Lewrie hooked his left arm through the larboard mizen shrouds and cupped his everyday mug in both bare hands, sticking his snout into the rising steam, sniffing deep before sipping. Did he gulp down the scalding coffee quick enough, he might temporarily dispel the chill he felt. Even with his undress uniform coat doubled over his chest, and the nine gilt buttons done up, even with his heavy grogram boat cloak draped over his shoulders and clasped at his throat, he shivered, for he had spent too much time in warmer climes, and had yet to be inured to North Atlantic, or British, weather. Even three months of a Nova Scotian late summer and early autumn hadn’t quite done the trick.
Not for inuring, anyway, he silently scoffed, recalling long weeks spent swinging at anchor at Halifax, awaiting the yard’s attentions after coming in with despatches. The boresome nature of a naval “village” of fewer than five thousand residents, the unending diet of cod, and moose . . . !
“One, and two, and three, and . . . away!” the Bosun cried as the deep-sea lead, the heavy 25-pound hollow-bottomed cone, was “armed” with tallow, at last, swung out, and dropped into the sea with a loud splash, and the two-cable line went thrumming out through the main-yard block, the sheave keening, and the long flakes of the line laid out atop the starboard gangway twitching back and forth, one end to the other.
“Watch yer fackin’ feet, boys,” an Irish sailor cautioned, “or Davy Jones’ll swig yer rum ration ’is fair mairnin’!”
Whip-whip-whip went the flakes, racing in pursuit of the plummet as it dove for the stygian depths. One hundred fathoms of it gone, already, the ten-fathom sets of knots passing in a blur, and the Bosun and his Mate, Mr. Towpenny, already looking towards the “bitter end” on the light, horizontal barrel-winch to assure themselves that it would not go overboard. Yet . . . !
The whip-whipping slowed, one last flake lazily shortening from bow-to-stern on the gangway, then stood upright to the block, its long-stored kinks no longer being stretched out, then the out-board length kinking; then, went limp and still, feeding out mere inches more with each slow roll or toss of the ship’s hull!
“A hun’erd an’ twenty . . . hun’erd an’ twenty-five, an’ a quarter less, t’this line!” one of the freezing hands hung in the hawse-breeches shrilled, able to count the dozen spaced knots just below the water, and the single halfway knot bobbing just above the mean surge. “Soundin’s! In-Soundin’s, at a hun’erd an’ twenty-five fathom!”
The cheer that that news elicited could have split the heavens, nearly equalled the volume of a well-controlled, simultaneous broadside from the starboard-side guns, or shivered the main course!
“Hoist, and haul away!” Mr. Winwood roared as the din died off. “Note carefully the time, Mister Grace,” he told his assisting middle, to whom he had already loaned his large pocket watch.
Long minutes, it took, to winch up the length of sodden manila line, for the pair of sailors on the main-chain platform to guide the line, and the heavy plummet, to the surface, then up the ship’s flanks and tumblehome to the entry-port, where Mr. Winwood, Mr. Pendarves, and Mr. Towpenny knelt down, and looked at the muck caught in the tallow in its hollow bottom.
In-Soundings of somewhere, Lewrie thought as he finished off a last cool sip of black coffee. He drifted forward to the binnacle to join his officers, who were already intently poring over the sea-chart pinned to the traverse board, tracing mittened fingers over the “iffy” contours of the 120-fathom line. Which line bespoke an host of possibilities, from Danish Iceland to French Ushant.
Somewhere there are law courts, bailiffs, accusin’ letters . . . court-martials and nooses! Lewrie quietly despaired. And it had been such a promising career he’d had, too, twenty bloody years of his life “press-ganged” into the Navy with nothing better open to a gentleman of his station . . . well, there always had been Pimp and Captain Sharp, and gaggles of the gullible to fleece, but nothing quiet so certain . . . so boresomely certain, as the life of a King’s Commission Sea-Officer. Dammit!
Aye, though, he felt like groaning aloud; make one little mistake, try t’do just one good turn, an’ see where it gets you! And, it was in the cause of keepin’ this ship manned an’ efficient, too! Ye’d think that’d earn a man a pat on the back, or someth . . . !
“Ah, hmm,” the Sailing Master announced, after a long, furrowed-brow study, and a peer at his sea-charts once he’d attained the quarterdeck without Lewrie noticing. “A blue-grey ooze, sirs, a clay-ey muck, at that, I am bound. Stap me if I do not believe we’re within twenty leagues of Cape Clear, on Ireland. Sixty or so sea-miles Sou’west of Cape Clear, to be more exact, ah ha.”
“The Sou’wester gale blew us further North than we had thought,” Lt. Langlie gayly opined, nodding his head sagaciously. “If we wish to round the Lizard, not put into the Bristol Channel . . .”
“Captain, sir,” Mr. Winwood ponderously stated, drawing himself fully erect, “in my humble opinion, we should shape a course abeam the Westerlies, ’til we may take a second sounding, towards evening.”
“Due South,” Lewrie replied, nodding himself. “So there’s not a risk of grounding either on the Scillies or the Lizard. Who knows? By dawn, and a clearer sky, your tables will give us the time of sunrise t’ go by. With any luck at all, the weather will clear enough for the sun’s height at Noon Sights!”
“Just so, Captain,” Winwood agreed, with a slight bow.
“Then we won’t have to embarrass ourselves by speaking the very first ship we see,” Lewrie japed, “and hoisting ‘Hold Church Service,’ ‘Location,’ and ‘Interrogative’ flags.”
“Sir?” Mr. Midshipman Gamble dared ask, at last, with a look of a young man ready to be amused by his captain’s wit, willing to be the goat who supplied the rhetorical question if the others wouldn’t, but not exactly sure where his superior’s jest was going.
“Stands for ‘Oh God, Where Am I?,’ Mister Gamble,” Lewrie quipped with a wry chuckle. “Very well, Mister Langlie. Secure the sounding gear, get our frozen sailors in-board, and Aspinall?” he bade the lad, who still hovered nearby in his heavy wool-frieze boat, with his white apron dangling below its hem. “A cup o’ hot coffee for all who assisted the Sailing Master. Hands to the braces, and make her course Due South, Mister Langlie. Wear her about.”
“Aye aye, sir!”
Lewrie paced aft to the taffrails to get out of the way while the cross-cocked jibs and foresails were eased over to starboard, and the helm was put over, the hard-angled set of the principal sails was eased from trying to go “full and by” too close to the winds, to loose-cupping what wind there was, as Proteus’s bows swung leeward, the wind came more abeam, then from astern. At the precise proper moment, and with the efficiency of a well-drilled crew with enough experience for two ships, by now, the yards were hauled about, the courses, tops’ls, and t’gallants began to draw, and HMS Proteus began to cleave her way through steel-grey seas, her clean quickwork slipping through the icy waters and gaining speed rapidly.
He left the taffrails and paced up the starboard side of the quarterdeck, which was now the windward side, and a captain’s rightful station alone, ’til he was by the mizen shrouds, hooked an arm through them, and oversaw without interfering in such a wonderous display of seamanship from all officers and hands, ’til the last brace, halliard, or jear was coiled, flaked down, and belayed on the pin-rails, and Mr. Langlie released all but the sailors in the Forenoon Watch from their stations. A quick cast of the knot-log proved that even on this light wind, Proteus was loping along at a decent seven knots, easily riding the quartering seas, slow-rocking more than hobby-horsing, and heeled no more than ten degrees according to the new-fangled clinometer, with the winds nearly full abeam.
The next mid-day might prove them level with the Lizard; half a day’s sailing after that might, if the winds remained out of the West or Sou’west, move them far enough below England’s westernmost headland to turn East, and scud up the Channel to Portsmouth, there to deliver despatches from Halifax to the Port Admiral.
There to be stripped of his sword of honour and bound in irons, then hauled off to an ignominious Fate?
Liam Desmond on his uillean lap-pipes, the ship’s fiddler, and a Marine fifer began to play a semi-lively old hymn. Unfortunately for Lewrie’s already-fretful nerves, he recognised the title as “I Want a Principle.” Damned if he didn’t, though he might have left it a tad late!
He pursed his lips, frowned heavily, and headed below and aft. Aspinall was still tending to those in need of his coffee-pot; Lewrie tossed off his own boat cloak, hat, and undid his coat, then sat down at his desk and dug his personal log out of the centre drawer, dipped one of his precious steel-nibbed (captured) French pens in the ink, and noted the time and date of Soundings, of shaping a new course; catching up on what the half-a-gale had carried away, what sails had split, and had to be replaced, which Mr. Rayne, their Sailmaker, thought he could repair, and what the cost in materials would be when the time came to pay Proteus off in a home dockyard, the war with France ended. . . .
“. . . that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
’twas blind, but now, I see!”
Mister Winwood has a sense of humour? Lewrie was forced to gawp. Two years or more, and the Sailing Master couldn’t seem to catch even the broadest jape . . . now this waggish witticism? For the suggestion for a thanksgiving hymn surely had been his. Lewrie knew the words as a poem written by a former Liverpool slave-ship captain, John Newton, who had been shipwrecked and enslaved himself on the African coast; the tune, though, sounded suspiciously close to “Nottingham Ale,” not a ditty he’d think popular with the fervently religious.*
Apt, though, he decided; now we know where we are. He could understand British tars singing so lustily, this close to home, but his “Free Black volunteers,” too?
The root of his troubles, those “volunteers,” a round dozen of them, who’d really been encouraged to meet his ship’s boats one night in Portland Bight on Jamaica’s south coast, and escape a lifetime of slavery, chains, whips, and cruel misery, to join the Royal Navy under new aliases as “free men.” Seemed like a great idea, then, when his ship had been so short of hands after so many of his British tars had died of Yellow Jack, but now, though . . .
“. . . many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have al-ready come!
’Tis Grace hath bro’t me safe, thus far,
and Grace will lead me home!”
“Something should,” Lewrie muttered; “lead ’em home, very far from me,” he added under his breath. Listening to the harmonies of his Black sailors, no matter how loyally and stoutly they had served, he could not help but add a fretful “Damn ’em!”
Copyright © 2006 by Dewey Lambdin. All rights reserved.