A Fine Boy for Killingby Jan Needle
Under sealed orders for a long, arduous voyage, Captain Daniel Swift dispenses shipboard law with an iron fist to forge an efficient crew from a ragged group of unwilling, inexperienced "volunteers." See more details below
Under sealed orders for a long, arduous voyage, Captain Daniel Swift dispenses shipboard law with an iron fist to forge an efficient crew from a ragged group of unwilling, inexperienced "volunteers."
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At about the time that Thomas Fox was pulling on his old dark coat and wondering if the morning mist would clear before he reached the marshiest parts of his road, William Bentley was taking his second glass of green tea with his uncle on board the frigate Welfare. They were only about eight miles aparteight miles of land and waterand they were destined to meet later that day. Thomas, who was fifteen and the son of a small farmer, was excited. He was to take twelve sheep to the market at Portsmouth, on his own; a full day's work. William, who was fourteen, was not excited; he was business-like, a little worried. Faced with a difficult and responsible task.
"You will find the cutter adequate," his uncle told him, sipping his glass of tea. "She can be manned by a small crew, but there is room enough on board of her if you manage anything. But William. Remember this much. You are not entitled to do this work. It is, let us say, not strictly within the bounds of legality. Let the men go unarmed. Dolby and Evans may carry pistols, but let them be out of sight."
William Bentley smiled at his uncle. He felt very grateful, although nervous. He hoped he could bring the trick off.
"I'll do my best, uncle," he replied. "How many men do we need in all?"
Daniel Swift returned the smile grimly.
"Officially, my boy, we are within ten men of our full complement. Officially. But what have we got? Riffraff, gutter scrapings. I tell you, William, if we do not find some seamen soon we will come to grief.We have far to go."
William would have liked to have known how far, but he could not ask. Far it must certainly be, however, for the provisions and spare gear taken on board the Welfare in the last few days had been prodigious. In his long life at sea he had seen nothing to match it. He smiled once more, to himself this time. He had been at sea, in fact, merely eleven months. But he had been on the Navy's books since he was seven years old. His sea-time was excellent.
Uncle Daniel tinkled his fingernails against the glass.
"Think you can do it, my boy?" he asked. "Are you aware just how delicate a situation you find yourself in?"
"Sir," said William. "Individual pressing is against the law. We must bow on all occasions to the wishes of those above us. A captain who resorted to the personal press gang, on shore, in England, in these days would be villainous indeed. I would not dream of such a step were I a commanding officer, nor would I expect any in His Majesty's Navy to ask it of his officers or young gentlemen."
As he spoke, he stared through the square glass windows in the stern. The ship was swinging as the west-going tide along the Solent set in. Portsmouth, shrouded in mist, appeared to bob slowly into sight. Rising above the white carpet was the brownish shape of Portsdown Hill. It had been a warm, dry summer.
"But let me take a good boat's crew, uncle," he went on, "and who knows ... It looks like a good day again. The pleasant weather, my sweet tongue, the thought of the bounty, of prize-money ... We are not the press, however. I shall not forget it."
He finished his tea as word was brought that the cutter was ready. His uncle waved him out with a muttered "Good luck"then called him back.
"Mr Bentley," he said. "Good men we want, but bad will do. The people in this ship are villains and the sons of whores. But we can shape 'em. And William," he added. "Livestock too, my boy. We need more. We have far to go. You have the money?"
William nodded and went on deck. He sniffed the air. A keen westerly, with the bite of approaching winter in it. A soldier's wind; to Portsmouth and back to St Helen's Roads with never a tack. He ordered the boat lowered.
Thomas Fox whistled tunefully as he wandered through the mist towards Portsmouth. He was cold and the sheep were a nuisance, but he was happy. Soon the mist would clear completely, which would be a help. Two or three times he'd stepped off the track into the salty marsh, and his right foot was wet. The sheep behaved even more stupidly than usual in the mist, too. He'd led one by a string at first, hoping the others would follow. But now he walked behind them, swishing a stick and occasionally barking savagely and with great effect.
The eastern side of the island, where Thomas lived with his parents and two sisters, was not good land, tending to dampness and desertion. As he walked along the track to more civilised parts, listening to the moaning of the sheep and the mysterious gurglings of the marshland, he dreamed idly of what he would rather do. Portsmouth was the good place to be. It was noisy, and dirty, and full of wild sailormen and their even wilder women. Even Kingston, he thought, as his track joined a bigger path that eventually became the main road through Kingston and on to Portsmouth, even Kingston would be better than the marshy hamlet in the east. It had an air of liveliness, of bustle.
As the mist drifted away, the old bent spire of the Kingston church rose into view over the fields, and Thomas concentrated on keeping the sheep in a bunch on the wider road. The sun burst through, the mist rolled back like a carpet. Beyond the church the fortifications were becoming visible.
From the seaward, William Bentley stared just as hard at the city that seemed to bound towards the cutter. To the east of it the land lay like a board, still sullenly holding a thin layer of white. But Portsmouth had a different whiteness, the whiteness of the stone defences. Between the Square Tower and the Round Tower, outside the actual entrance to the harbour, was the entrance to the city that the man at the tiller was heading for. The Sallyport.
It was good Sailing, but William felt a little guilty about enjoying it so much. He was a midshipman, not a pleasure-seeker. He had in his direct command two other midsone of them at least thirty years his seniorand fourteen seamen. Possibly the only fourteen real seamen on the Welfare, he thought ruefully. He was off on a mission that could not be easy, would probably break the law in several places, and may well be totally unsuccessful.
Watching the short green seas that leapt almost broadside on to the cutter, and huddling deeper into his boat-cloak against the constant spray, William considered the problem of the people. They were indeed a vile and ruffianly lot, pressed scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, two-legged creatures of such awful lowness that they might just as well have been the animals that his uncle called them. He looked at the quiet figures ranged along the windward side of the cutter. Sturdy, steady fellows in neat clothes and pigtails. Good men, good seamen, all. Then he looked at Dolby, the grey-haired mid. Two pistols were outlined beneath his boat-cloak. Without the threat of those, perhaps even these men would run.
Some captains, William knew, found no hardship getting up a complement. A few posters, perhaps a handbill, a little music and the beating of drums. A ship could be filled in days. Prime seamen would plead to join, would be turned away. Not his uncle. Captain Daniel Swift, veteran of several brilliant frigate actions, courageous to the last drop of his or any seaman's blood, had a reputation; but not the kind that filled a ship with volunteers.
The cutter, swooping over the short green seas like a bird, approached the steep-to shingle beach and the black pier a trifle fast. William cleared his mind of sober thoughts and put it to the job in hand.
"Luff her if you please, Dolby," he said crisply. "We'll get the canvas off her and drop in under oars, stern first. We've dry work to do ashore, and dry we'll be to start it."
As the boat headed into the wind and sea and the big seaman moved with uncanny agility to stifle the flapping sails, he forgot his uncle's evil reputation. In five minutes they would be in Portsmouth. It was his job to complete the ship's complement. A job that was still unfinished after nearly four months.
Just before he entered the first scattering of houses on the edge of the city, Thomas Fox stopped for a spell. The sheep, stupid as they were, were good at stopping and nibbling. He climbed onto a hummock, pulled a long stem of dry grass, and sucked happily.
It was well into the forenoon now, and the roads to Portsmouth were fairly busy. There were big ox-wagons, lighter carts, and innumerable foot-passengers, some coming, some going. Most of the traffic was for the hamlets on the island, but some of the vehicles made purposefully northwards, towards Portsbridge, the causeway, and the lonely turnpike that hauled steeply over Portsdown and on towards London. The sun was shining, and the crowds were noisy and generally good-humoured. Thomas was hailed several times, and lifted his bonnet in greetingnot because he knew the hailers, but because he was hailed.
In fact he had little interest in the roads or the edge of the town. He was still far enough to the eastward to see the ocean (as he thought it) stretching from beyond the great common over to the Isle of Wight. On its white-capped surface lay the ships that were Britain's defence. Mostly yellow, they were, and almost unbelievably big and noble. The humble merchant craft that threaded among them, lying to the steady breeze, seemed dingy and contemptible by comparison.
Thomas sometimes thought he would like to go to sea, and in fact his family had connections with it. His cousin Silas, whom Thomas vaguely remembered as a tall, thin, fair man twice his age, was a marine. Probably in one of those ships he could see at anchor, if the truth were known. He hadn't been seen by the family for a long age; there was a war on. It was, after all, he thought, perhaps not the life for him. They barely scratched a living as it was, even with his strong arms to help. And when did seamen ever get their pay? According to his aunt, no money had come to them on Silas's account in memory; and he was a marine.
He pulled his eyes away from the sea and spat out the straw. The wind chilled him through his old, threadbare coat. He watched a thin dog creeping on its belly towards one of his flock. Waited until it was near, then lifted a flint and hurled it. It hit the dog's bared teeth with a bang. The dog screeched in pain and limped hurriedly away. Thomas took up his whistling again. Now. Let's get to market.
Although the city sprawled rottenly well outside its walls, he followed the road that led through one of the great turreted gates. Now he was in the main stream of traffic the job got rapidly harder. He tied the lead sheep with string and hobbled a couple of the others. But it took all his skill, plus a lot of cursing, barking and shouting, to keep them half together. He wielded the stick ferociously, as well as his bare feet and the pocketful of stones he'd collected. But progress was slow. Every time a wagon passed, the sheep went blind with panic. Every time they spotted a patch of green they stopped and ate. As often as possible he took to the fields, but as he penetrated farther into the busy town the fields got fewer and the job harder.
The progress made by William Bentley and his boat's crew was even slower. Not that driving fourteen seamen was harder than driving twelve sheep, even in the narrow streets of Spice Island. It was rather that he was at a loose end, searching, looking for something but not being quite sure what. As they wandered off Broad Street into the dark narrow alleys of squalid hovels, the people melted away as if by magic. All the men in all the teeming streets seemed to vanish as the sailors turned the corners. Dirty-faced women, spitting streams of filth past their hands, watched them with open hostility. William felt furious, with these people and with himself. He muttered to Dolby: "My God, what scum these people are. What filth. To think we need such gutter rats to man the nation's ships!"
But Dolby looked away and said nothing. Dolby was of these people. Evans, the other midshipman, who was nearer William in age and station, seemed embarrassed. His shrill voice filled the gap.
"I agree, Mr Bentley. What scum indeed! Things are at a pretty pass."
And the fourteen seamen stumped stolidly on in silence.
It came to William after some time that, press gang or no, that is what they were being taken for. He had quartered Spice Islandthat part of Portsmouth on the easternmost extremity of the harbour entrance, more truly known as Pointseveral times and drawn a total blank. Of seamen there were none, or even merely able-bodied men, or youths, or cripples. Only women were abroad today, it appeared; only women were visible. How could he offer the King's bounty to thin air? He was beginning to feel foolish. Uncle Daniel expected a lot of him. Was he to let him down completely? He had Dolby halt the shore party, and gestured Evans to one side.
"Listen, Jack," he said, "we've been rumbled in this place. I'm going to shed Dolby and the men and go recruiting on my own account."
Evans looked aghast.
"But our orders?"
"Orders you need not worry about," William replied. "I will take all responsibility. I have a free hand with Captain Swift on this expedition."
He did not have to spell it out. Evans knew well enough what it was like to be a favourite nephew.
"I'm with you then, Will," he said. "Have you a plan?"
"Less than half a plan. We'll head for the Cambridge and have a bite and some gin. First" he did not drop his voice"let's get rid of that old fool Dolby."
Twenty minutes later, while Dolby and the boat's crew waited cold and disconsolate on the windy side of Sallyport, William Bentley and Jack Evans drank gin and ate hot mutton pies at the Cambridge. They talked gaily enough of the problems to be met with in dealing with the lower orders, but William was feeling less than gay. A coolish, even cold, sensation was growing in the pit of his stomach. He'd found no one or nothing so far. It had been a fool's errand, a wild-goose chase. Could he face his Uncle Daniel Swift if he returned barehanded? No. Could he think of an alternative? So far, certainly not. He half listened in irritation as Evans told some interminable tale of hanging a poacher he and his brothers had caught setting traps, and stared out of the upstairs window across High Street. The city was all a-bustle. The shipyards, the crowded mean houses, the clattering traffic moving towards the sea.
And the market.
Down towards the market Thomas Fox drove his ragged band of twelve sheep. But at the entrance to the coach yard of the Cambridge he halted. The sheep halted too. They began to nibble the thin grass beside the gateposts. Thomas Fox patted his pouch. It contained bread and a few pence. Bread and beer. He lifted his stick and beat the sheep into the yard. William Bentley finished his glass of gin.
His laugh interrupted Evans.
"Well well," he said. "Lambs to the slaughter."
Meet the Author
Jan Needle, a native of Portsmouth, England, has had a lifelong interest in naval history. He is the author of four acclaimed novels under the pseudonym Frank Kippax, and also has a highly successful career as a TV scriptwriter and, under his own name, as a writer of award-winning children's fiction.
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