South Atlantic Ocean, November 1838
As he slumped exhaustedly in the cutter that pulled from the brig Swallow to the expedition flagship Vincennes, Wiki Coffin wondered if he smelled as bad as Lieutenant Forsythe. Over the past five days, while the cutter and its battered, miserable crew had been struggling to rejoin the expedition fleet, the steward of the Swallow had painstakingly mended and cleaned Forsythe’s uniform, and so the lieutenant’s appearance was smart enough, considering his bulky frame. Forsythe’s lumpy, battered face was reddened and scraped where he had shaved off a week’s worth of hard stubble, too. To spoil the effect, though, he stank like a skunk.
Wiki was wearing his best broadcloth, which was even cleaner than Forsythe’s uniform, because he wore it so seldom. Despite the urgency of Captain Wilkes’s summons, he had taken the time to wash in a bucket of fresh water, and had lashed up his long black hair. Still, though, he couldn’t help wondering if the effluvium of the past five days clung to his skin—a qualm that became full-blown as the boat clicked against the starboard side of the Vincennes.
The oarsman in the bow stopped the cutter by holding on to a dangling rope. Then all six men of the crew silently contemplated Wiki and Lieutenant Forsythe, while Wiki watched them back with great respect. These seamen had also endured five horrible days of bucketing about in the thirty-foot cutter while they struggled to rejoin the expedition fleet. They had regained the brig Swallow just four hours before, but now they were as shipshape and smart as if they had never been away. Even the cutter was clean.
Their expressions were noncommittal, but, to Wiki’s surprise, as Lieutenant Forsythe clambered to his feet, the men stood, too, and saluted their commander. It was a remarkable compliment, and an eloquent sign of their respect for his seamanship. Forsythe was universally disliked for his unpredictability, brutality, and foul tongue, but it was a tacit recognition that few other officers could have brought the thirty-foot craft to a mid-Atlantic rendezvous with the fleet. Characteristically, Forsythe didn’t even bother to return the salute, instead casting his crew a suspicious and aggressive look before turning to grab one of the rungs of the side-ladder.
Wiki reluctantly followed. When they clambered over the gangway at the top of the tall side of the ship, the squad of marines on duty stamped loudly to attention, while the two side-boys, one at each side of the ladder, saluted, and the boatswain piped on his call. A comradely wink from one of the marines was an unwelcome reminder that every jack tar in the U.S. Exploring Expedition knew that both he and Forsythe were in deep disgrace. Wiki lifted a brow in wry acknowledgment, but Forsythe stayed blank-faced as he headed past the mainmast to the great deckhouse where Captain Wilkes and the shipboard scientifics lived and worked. The two men at the ship’s wheel, which was stationed just in front of the house, glanced sideways with sympathetic looks, too, and the corporal of marines who was standing sentry in the alcove stamped and saluted with unusual fervor.
Obviously, there was no need to state their business, but Forsythe barked that they were here in reply to the captain’s summons. The corporal saluted again, turned smartly, and led the way into the lofty, white-painted corridor beyond the open door. To the left-hand side of the long passage, a credenza topped with wooden spindles half hid a saloon furnished with a table large enough to seat twenty, with revolving chairs screwed to the floor all around. This dining room was empty, and the varnished doors at both ends were closed, as were those to the four staterooms on the far side of the corridor. The soldier kept on going, heading for a set of double doors at the end of the passage, while Forsythe and Wiki followed.
Their steps echoed hollowly, then stopped. With a double stamp as he brought his feet together, the marine knocked deafeningly. At the preoccupied sound of a distant grunt, he opened the doors with a flourish, and stood aside to let Wiki and Forsythe pass through. Then the doors slammed shut again, and Wiki heard the retreating thunder of boots as the corporal marched back to his post.
The room smelled of preserving alcohol and ink. Long rays of bright late afternoon sun streamed in a great skylight, and the glazed windows in the stern let in water reflections, which moved hypnotically over racks of glass jars where enigmatic creatures floated, and the shelves where many books and charts were securely stacked. Rows of chronometers in padded boxes solemnly ticked, not quite in unison. This was the place where the shipboard scientifics worked alongside the ship’s officers who had been assigned to surveying duties. Right now, however, only the commander in chief of the expedition was in residence.
Captain Wilkes, though standing, was bent over a chart that had been spread out on one of the tables, filling in figures along the line that marked the last track of survey. For some moments, he ignored their arrival. Wiki stood beside Lieutenant Forsythe, his feet braced apart to counter the slow roll of the ship, and warily contemplated the tall, lean, ascetic figure. The last time he had been summoned here, he’d been given the brief of hunting pirates on Shark Island. It was hard to believe that it had been only four weeks ago. Just as before, every small movement betrayed Wilkes’s inner tension. There were patches of red high on the cheekbones of his narrow face, and he occasionally lifted a hand to rub his forehead, as if it hurt.
Wiki already knew that the commandant of the exploring fleet was under great pressure—that he had been under stress for years, for Charles Wilkes had been intimately involved with the expedition since the very beginning. As a decade had dragged by in an endless chaos of political and scientific lobbying and public controversy, he, unlike many others, had remained loyal to the project. After he had been appointed to the position of fleet commodore, following the resignation of his fiery rival, Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones, powers in the navy had received the news with open outrage, but the humiliating acrimony had been the least of Wilkes’s problems. Ships had proved unsuitable, and he’d been forced to replace them at incredibly short notice, and then have the replacements provisioned in a navy yard where the outfitters and victuallers had been unwaveringly hostile. The papers had dubbed the enterprise “the Deplorable Expedition,” and it had become the butt of cartoonists and music hall comedians, but Charles Wilkes had stubbornly clung to his vision of an American scientific triumph. Despite his notoriously volatile temper, Wiki still found him admirable.
At last he looked up, right into Wiki’s face. “So I finally see you!”
“Aye, sir,” Wiki warily admitted.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself? I distinctly recollect giving you instructions to report back without a moment’s delay—and yet I had to send Lieutenant Smith with the Flying Fish to remind you of your obligations. Almost four whole weeks have elapsed since I saw you last!”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Being sorry is not sufficient! Lieutenant Forsythe—what is your excuse for keeping me in the dark, sir? I want to know what the hell you were thinking!”
Before Forsythe could open his mouth, Wiki forestalled him, saying firmly, “The delay was entirely my fault, sir.”
Captain Wilkes’s large eyes opened wide with affront; for the first time Wiki realized how bloodshot they were. He echoed, “Your fault?”
“Aye, sir. When we found an American ship in distress at the island, I thought the priority was to render assistance. After all, she was a fellow national—”
“Now, wait a bloody minute,” Forsythe interrupted. The glance he cast at Wiki was inimical. “Who was in charge of the goddamned mission—you or me?”
“Exactly!” Captain Wilkes exclaimed. “You’re supposed to be a linguister, damn it—a civilian! Your job was to investigate, not to decide priorities! Just who the bloody hell do you think you are?” He crashed his fist down on the desktop and shouted, “It’s high time you carried out the proper duties you’ve neglected to perform!”
“Duties?” Wiki felt puzzled, because he thought he had worked extremely hard, both off and on the brig Swallow. “What duties?”
“You were shipped to work as the expedition’s linguister, Mr. Coffin—to translate for us, and coordinate with the other scientifics! Not only have you done no translating at all, but you’ve failed to answer questions about Pacific languages that Lieutenant Smith has posed—and he has now filed a formal complaint about your lack of cooperation.”
My God, thought Wiki—he wouldn’t have believed that even the petty-minded Lawrence J. Smith would do this to him. The overbearing little prig had asked him no questions about Pacific languages at all! And even if Smith was the commodore’s particular crony, Captain Wilkes should have had the intelligence to realize that the pompous little prawn was far too proud of what he considered his vast and superior knowledge to ever listen to the ideas and opinions of anyone else, let alone deign to ask advice.
He said hotly, “If Lieutenant Smith ever did ask questions, I would have answered them to the best of my ability—but he’s never given me the chance!”
“That is not what he tells me, Mr. Coffin! And you do yourself no service by accusing him of telling lies!” The patches of red on Captain Wilkes’s cheekbones stood out; he was obviously building himself up into a right royal rage. “What the hell did you think you joined the expedition for?” he demanded. “To loaf away your time on board the brig Swallow, at the expense of the U.S. Navy? To stand by while Lieutenant Smith carries out all the language-related research, and then grab the honor and glory after the expedition returns?”
Wiki’s mouth fell open. “What?”
“If I’d had my way,” said Captain Wilkes, obviously harping on an old grievance, “the scientific corps would have been entirely manned by naval officers! There would not have been a single goddamned rascal of a civilian on board to usurp all the credit when we get back home!”
Insulted to the point of indiscretion, Wiki protested, “I have no intention of claiming any credit at all—I don’t want it, I’d never ask for it, and I resent the slur on my character, sir!”
“But there’s more, Mr. Coffin! Even though you’re expected to assist the other scientifics, you have not bestirred yourself to make their acquaintance! You’re not even aware of their specialities! Have you made any attempt to share your knowledge of the Pacific—or educate the members of the crew about the places where they are going? No, you have not!”
“I have answered all the questions I’ve been asked,” Wiki exclaimed.
“How dare you interrupt! You have not played your part at all! Did you bother to make any measurements at Shark Island—did you collect any plants? No, you did not! You have done nothing to earn your place with the expedition.”
“Captain Wilkes, that’s unfair and unwarranted!” Wiki was angrier than ever. He was a translator, not a teacher or a surveyor or a botanist, and no one had given him any kind of hint that he was supposed to measure the ground he covered.
“Unfair? Unwarranted?” Captain Wilkes savagely echoed. “I don’t think so, and you will find that I have ways of making you fulfill your obligations.” Again, his fist hit the top of the desk, and he roared, “You are reassigned to the Vincennes!”
Wiki opened his mouth, but then shut it again as alarm took over from affront and fury. He had joined the expedition only because his old friend George Rochester, the captain of the brig Swallow, had repeatedly asked him to do so. If George hadn’t found him the civilian job of linguister with the fleet, right now he’d be on board some workaday whaleship, heading off to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, for yet another visit with his whanau—his folks. The only reason he’d agreed to employ his vast knowledge of the Pacific and its languages in the service of the exploring expedition was that the prospect of sailing around the world with his old friend on his dashing little brig had been so appealing. The horrible notion that he might be assigned to a different ship had never even crossed his mind.
Battling a sense of panic, he said quickly, “Give me a moment to write my resignation, and you’ll see the last of me in Rio.”
“How dare you argue with me!” Wilkes exploded. “Don’t force me to remind you of the terms of agreement you signed! Get it into your head that you are reassigned, Mr. Coffin—to the Vincennes!—where you will live and work in this afterhouse, and satisfy the questions posed to you by the other scientifics! Try to understand that you have absolutely no choice in the matter!” And with that he barked that they were both dismissed, and the exceedingly unpleasant interview was over.
As they escaped from the afterhouse, Wiki could hear Captain Wilkes marching up the corridor behind them, his steps still ominously angry. Everyone on the quarterdeck jumped nervously to attention. Wiki and Forsythe stepped smartly aside to let him by, and watched him make his way to the waist deck, where Lieutenant Smith was supervising a couple of men who were untangling strands of seaweed from dredge nets. Then Forsythe headed off to a nearby companionway, and Wiki was left alone, standing about in the alcove without a notion of what he was supposed to do next.
Above his head, massive masts lifted to the late afternoon sky, interconnected with an intricate web of rigging. The lower sails of the Vincennes were brailed up, just the great main topsail being set to keep the ship still, and so Wiki could see all the way along the decks to the galley forward, where the food for the people who lived in the afterhouse was cooked. The smokestack plumed, and steam issued from the open doorway. Supper would be served soon, he thought, but he was far too tired to feel hungry.
Instead, Wiki was overwhelmed with something that felt perilously close to panic. Between the galley and the doorway of the afterhouse the vast expanse of planks was teeming with what seemed like a hundred men, and he couldn’t even guess what most of them were doing. Groups of seamen were gathered about the foremast and mainmast, hectored by boatswains’ mates with their shrilling calls, while others were hammering away amidships, where the ship’s launch and two cutters were stored inside each other, the largest at the bottom, and the smallest—which also served as a pigpen—at the top. If he had been told to climb to the main topgallant crosstrees and then lay out along the yard, he would have had no trouble at all, but finding his way around this daunting seven-hundred-ton flagship—more than seven times the size of the Swallow!—seemed utterly beyond his powers, let alone making an adjustment to the unwritten laws of life on an overcrowded sloop of war.
A concerned Yankee voice said in his ear, “Be you quite fine, sir?”
It was the corporal who was on sentry duty. Wiki summoned a reassuring smile, though every muscle hurt and every bone ached from the aftereffects of the passage in the cutter. He had not slept for more than an hour at a time in the five days since leaving Shark Island, and it was an effort to focus his grit-filled eyes. Then he jumped a foot, as the marine glanced at the ship’s clock hanging in the alcove above the door to the afterhouse, looked up at the officer who was pacing the roof, and bellowed right by Wiki’s ear, “Time, sir!”
The officer lifted his trumpet, shouted, “Strike the bell!” and a boy rushed out of nowhere and energetically hammered at the ship’s bell by the wheel. He rang the bell eight times—it was four o’clock, the end of the afternoon watch and the beginning of the first dogwatch; time for the men going off duty to get their supper and the second issue of grog for the day; a time of relaxation, when songs were sung, and many yarns were told.
If Wiki had been on board the Swallow, he would have been relaxed in a warm spot on the deck, exchanging stories in Samoan with Tana and Sua, the two Kanakas—Pacific Islanders—of the crew, before heading off to his comfortable berth. Now, he didn’t even know where he was supposed to lay his head, except that it was somewhere in the afterhouse. Wearily, he turned and trudged back down the corridor.
Copyright © 2006 by Joan Druett. All rights reserved.