|HMS Themis • Corsica • Related Reading • Bio • Contact|
|1) Under Enemy Colors • 2) A Battle Won • 3) A Ship of War (UK)/Take, Burn or Destroy (US) • 4) Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead|
Out of the murk, a crest loomed palely and boomed against the forward quarter. A cascade of water broke along the deck, engulfing to the knees two men who clung to the shrouds. The ship, deeply laden and labouring, rolled heavily to leeward and a blast of wind struck Griffiths wetly across the face.
"I must have more hands, Doctor," the sailing master shouted almost into Griffiths' ear.
"I have given you all that can walk, Mr Barthe," the surgeon responded in like manner. "Those remaining are too ill to stand."
A flash of lightning illuminated the master's face, pale and streaming, hat clamped down to his eyebrows and bound tightly in place by a length of blue cotton.
"Is it the yellow jack, then? That is what men are saying."
"It is not, Mr Barthe. It is acute poisoning from some substance imbibed—likely the pork served this very day. But I have never seen it so severe. Men cannot stand, and have disgorged more fluids than their bodies can bear. It was my hope that you could spare men to aid me...."
"I cannot, Doctor. I have been reduced to sending boys and reefers aloft where they should not be. I can spare no one."
The ship rolled again, and water sluiced across the deck slopping about them. The doctor felt Mr Barthe's hand grasp his shoulder to preserve him from harm. Silence was enforced by a gust that devoured all human sound.
In the distance, lightning branched down into the sea, illuminating, for an instant, the chaotic waters, the spider-work of rigging. A boy struggled toward them, crabwise, hand over hand along the lifeline. In the flare of godly light, he slipped and fell, then dragged himself up on the taut line. He reached them, breathless, dismayed.
"Mr Barthe!" he shouted. "We have lost Penrith."
"What in hell do you mean, you've 'lost' him?"
"He went aloft with us, but no one saw him climb down. We do not know what became of him."
"Did you not number off the men as they reached the deck?"
A second of hesitation. "No, sir."
The master cursed. "Has he taken ill and slipped below?"
"Williams made a thorough search. We fear he's gone overboard, unseen."
"Damn this night! Call for Mr Landry!" The master began to struggle forward but turned back to the doctor.
"Will you take yourself below, Doctor? There is naught you can do here, and I should be happier knowing you were below in such weather."
Griffiths agreed, and scrambled toward the companionway, his last view of the gale, Barthe and some others in the waist, gazing up at the yards—stark, angular, gone. A heavy roll of thunder and he slipped and plunged down the stairs, cracking his elbow cruelly, twisting a knee beneath him as he struck the unyielding deck.
Philip Stephens had been First Secretary of the Admiralty for thirty years. Previous to that, he had been Second Secretary. Through his delicate hands passed the correspondence of admirals and captains, First Lords, ministers and spies. Lieutenant Charles Hayden was well aware that no one in the offices of the Admiralty was more intimate with the details of the Navy and her distant fleets than the little man who sat, mostly hidden by a writing table, before him. That he should be aware of the existence of one Lieutenant Charles Saunders Hayden, however, was still something of a surprise.
The First Secretary bent over a letter, his spectacles refracting sunlight from the nearby window into a faint prism on his cheek. The most prominent features of the man's face were inflamed arteries that spread, crimson, over his bulbous nose. They meandered onto his cheeks and branched into deltas beneath the rainbows from his spectacles. It was not so much a face, Hayden thought, as a landscape.
"Captain Bourne holds you in high regard," Stephens rasped, his voice throaty and thick.
"An honour I strive to deserve."
Stephens seemed not to hear this, but put the letter down upon his tidy table, removed his spectacles, and rather directly took Hayden's measure. Too easily trespassed against, the lieutenant felt heat flush into his face. It was, however, not the moment to take offence; that anyone in the admiralty building had noticed him was an opportunity not to be squandered.
Hayden had come to think of the Admiralty as a court. The First Lord was sovereign, the Lords Commissioners his ministers, all men of rank. Below him, the courtiers in their tiers, Admirals, Vice Admirals, Rear Admirals, captains both high and low on the list, and far below these influential personages, lowly lieutenants, all desperately hoping to be appointed governor of that tiny outpost of empire known as a ship of war. Those possessing the skills of a courtier, and family interest, tended to rise. Certainly, the Admiralty would always need a few gifted functionaries, like Philip Stephens, to keep things running smoothly; a handful of stouthearted, fighting captains; an Admiral or two who could manage a fleet action; but for the most part the courtiers succeed and everyone else bowed their heads, smiled charmingly when noticed, and hoped to find a patron who might advance their cause. Hayden was not, by nature, a courtier, but he did his best to appear receptive and amiable, all the same.
Stephens did not seem to notice. "I have a position for you, Lieutenant."
Hayden took a long breath and released it slowly into the small room. "I should be forever in your de--"
The First Secretary did not allow him to finish. "It is not the sort of position that puts you, forever, in another's debt. Captain Josiah Hart has need of a first lieutenant." A grim, little smile flickered across the pale lips. "I see by your face that you had hoped for a command...."
Hayden considered a tactful response, but then gave in to exasperation and, perhaps, disappointment. "I had hoped, by this time, to have earned greater consideration than a first lieutenant's commission.... But I will not refuse it," he added quickly.
The little man made a humming sound, produced a pocket handkerchief and began to clean the lenses of his spectacles. "Captain Hart has at his command an aging frigate, the Themis, in which he has been cruising the French coast... to damned little effect."
Hayden feared his eyes widened at this utterance.
Stephens went on, the linen being worked back and forth by the quick cocking of a wrist. "Five weeks ago he lost a seaman in a gale. Man fell from the mainsail yard by night. Never found. Not an entirely uncommon occurrence, one must say. But on the morning next, when the course was set, this dropped from the bunt." The Secretary reached down behind his table and produced a glass jar, stoppered and sealed with wax. In murky, amber fluid, a thick worm lay suspended, washing slowly forth and back. And then Hayden saw the nail.
"It is a finger!" the lieutenant blurted.
"Severed, cleanly, by a knife—or so the ship's surgeon concluded. He saw it freshly fallen from aloft, so I must give way to his opinion. As everyone aboard had their full complement of digits, except for three men who were known to have parted with theirs sometime earlier, it was assumed that the lost man had left his second finger behind." Stephens returned his gaze to Hayden, as though expecting a response
"But severed by a knife, sir...."
"Yes - hardly misadventure. The unlucky man was seen that very day in dispute with a landsman known to be of evil disposition. A knife in a bloody sheath was found rolled up in the landsman's hammock. He denies all, of course. Says he butchered some poultry—unfortunate bugger. He sits in Plymouth awaiting his date with the courts-martial."
"Surely he will not be convicted on such evidences as that?"
Stephens shrugged. Apparently the man's fate did not affect him overly.
"And what was a landsman doing aloft, if I may ask?"
"Half the crew were down with some malady—rancid pork, the surgeon posits. They sent boys and midshipmen aloft that same night." Stephens waved his hand, as though brushing aside this line of conversation. "Do you know Captain Hart at all?"
"I have not had the honour."
The First Secretary bobbed his head. "He is, how shall I say...? A man of some influence through Mrs Hart's family."
It was the lieutenant's turn to nod. Interest was something he understood well—due to his utter lack of it. In the court of the Admiralty, having a wife related to a "minister" counted for any number of successful actions at sea.
"There is some concern about this affair on the Themis. Her First Lieutenant invalided out at the end of the cruise. He claims to know nothing of the matter, and we pray that is so."
Hayden felt himself straighten a little in his chair. "If there are malcontents aboard Hart's ship, why not exchange them elsewhere?"
Stephens meticulously adjusted the position of a tidy stack of papers on his desk. "And suggest that Captain Hart cannot manage his own crew? I don't think that would answer in this case." He glanced up at Hayden. "But then you have dealt with a discontented crew before—most ably, I am given to understand."
Apparently the First Secretary knew Hayden's service record intimately. "When I was job-captain aboard the Wren..."
Stephens nodded once, but then a crease appeared between his meagre eyebrows. "Are you certain, Lieutenant, that you know nothing of Captain Hart? You are not being disingenuous?"
"I had not heard his name before entering this room."
Stephens gazed at him a moment, as though gauging the truth of this statement. "Hart's connexions within the Admiralty are of the highest order... It is, therefor, perhaps not surprising that I have received a request to place a lieutenant with... bottom aboard Captain Hart's ship—after all, even the most skilled captain has need of such an officer from time to time. Do you not agree?"
"What captain would argue against competent officers?"
The first secretary indulged a grim little smile. "What captain, indeed. It was my intention to find such an officer to serve aboard the Themis... but I am looking for something more. I tell you this in the strictest confidence, Mr Hayden. Is that understood?"
Hayden nodded, liking this conversation less by the moment.
"I require a man who will keep a most accurate record of Hart's exploits. I'm sure the good Captain's modesty is such that an honest account of his endeavours has never been made known within these walls."
Hayden sat forward a little. "I will not take this position, Mr Stephens," he said firmly, but then added, "though I am not ungrateful of the offer."
"But you have already accepted. Did I not hear correctly?"
Hayden tried to keep the anger from his voice, with only partial success. "That was before I knew you wished to turn me into an informant. Under such a circumstance I do not feel honour bound."
Neither man spoke for a moment, but Hayden feared his voice had betrayed him. Philip Stephen's face changed ever so slightly; drawn in but a little more, it would have formed a scowl.
"Allow me to be uncharacteristically forthright, Lieutenant Hayden." The First Secretary sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers before him. "You have little future in the King's Navy."
Hayden could not hide his complete and utter surprise at this statement—not because it was in the least untrue, but due to its audacity.
"Your friend...," Stephens shuffled through some papers, "the Honourable Robert Hertle, is about to make his Post, as would you have had you half his interest. Despite your manifest abilities—and I am certain Captain Bourne is too shrewd to have misjudged them—you are lodged in your present circumstances with little hope of forward movement. It does not help your cause that we are at war with France and that you are half a Frenchman."
"I am an Englishman, sir. My mother is French."
Stephens held up his hands. "Be at peace, Lieutenant. I have recently made the argument that your parentage weighs in your favour, for I am given to understand that you have lived in that country a good many years and speak the language as a native...."
"You must understand, Mr Hayden, that I am your advocate, but the prejudice of others is not easily overcome. That is why I am able to offer you only this first lieutenant's commission... at this time. It is true that I am asking you to write an account of your cruise, but certainly you would keep a journal, as a matter of course. Would you not?"
"It is not quite the same thing, Mr Stephens, as you well know."
"It certainly isn't if you choose to believe it is not. And I do admire your loyalty to the captain under whom I have proposed you serve, but sometimes loyalty to one's own cause is not such a terrible evil. Captain Hart, you should know, has a very good understanding of this distinction." He spread a little rectangle of paper on the table. "This is the address of one Thomas F. Banks, Esquire. My name should never appear on your letters in any way, but I will receive them all the same."
Hayden eyed the scrap of paper, disdainfully, but made no move to pick it up.
"That is not just an address resting on my table, Lieutenant. It might be better to think of it as representing your future in the navy. You may take it up... or you may leave it lie. I will allow you the evening to consider, but I shall require an answer by tomorrow, noon. At such time the position will be offered elsewhere." He leaned forward and slid the paper closer to Hayden. "In case you decide in favour of a career in the navy."
Hayden rose without taking the offered paper, but then found himself hesitating, hovering, as it were, over the table, eyeing the little rectangle of white overwritten in a spare hand. He knew if he left that room without it he would remove his uniform that day for the final time. His career in the navy would be over—a decision not to be hastily made. His left hand reached out and took up the paper, slipping it quickly into a pocket. Philip Stephens had returned to his papers and appeared not to notice.
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