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The bosun levelled a finger and pointed at the cabin boy, Phineas Bunch. Then it curled in for a moment, before extending itself in Williamsís direction. The bosun muttered quietly to the gentleman and was dismissed towards his own men with a shrug of a silken shoulder. The bosun gathered Bunch and Williams on either side of him. "You are to go when you are called."
"Why?" whispered Bunch
"Who is he?" enquired Williams, rubbing his head.
"Captain Roberts of the Rover," said the bosun. "He wishes a cabin boy and a music. The investors, captain, and admiralty shall know you were forced. I wish you good fortune. If you are taken by His Majesty you shall not be hanged; boys and music are excused."
"We are to be traded?" asked Williams incredulously.
"Given," corrected the bosun.
The Rover and the Success sat together for the remainder of the day. Since both Bunch and Williams held their tongues, it occurred to no one that they seemed curiously accepting of their fate. He could not speak for the younger cabin boy, but Williams would have admitted relief at the thought of distancing himself from the Success and her bosun. Though Williams had decided he bore only a featherweight responsibility for the neglect of his watch, he knew that the captain of the Success would not share the levity of his assessment. He believed the bosun shared the thought and released him for the good of all.
It was the second time in his brief life as a sailor that he had been pressed. For most, it was an involuntary act, involving both deception and force, but Williams had consented. In Plymouth, when the tavern was empty for fear of the press, he had sat patiently cleaning his fingernails with his teeth. And when a friendly, measuring smile approached, Williams greeted it warmly and shared near on a dozen rounds. He did not wish the morningís headache and made a fair imitation of a drunken man, all the while pouring great quantities of stout down his leg. The puddle gathered at his feet without the sound of splashing. At midnight, propped between a pair of unwashed bodies, Williams was carried to the Success, singing and carefully slurring his words in feigned ignorance. He did not discover that the Success was a slaver until they were ten days from Plymouth. His objections were not moral, but financial. Delusions of immediate wealth were dismissed by the quartermaster, who informed Williams that he was in debt to the Success for the money the captain had spent on hiring the press that seized him. It was illogical, offensive, and the law, which made his decision to leave the slaver all the more easy.
At nightfall, echoes of drum and fife carried across to the Success as Bunch and Williams, with their pair of sea-chests, bobbed in the gig between the ships amid the ocean swells. Captain Roberts sat across from them. Beneath the tricorn hat, pricked by a peacockís feather, was a steady pair of eyes, buried brown and heavy lidded, rising from darkened skin. They were bolstered by wrinkles that unfurled upwards, etched wings. He was old for the sea, thought Williams, perhaps close to forty. Williams tried to match the captainís stare but soon looked down.
"You," spoke Roberts to Williams in his native tongue of Welsh, "where did you learn your music?" The voice was lower than his own, none of his teenage wavering, but seemed to possess its own echo. Williams could not contain a smile to hear his own language spoke, and smiled even wider when Bunch looked about him in confusion.
"By Caernarvon," blurted the young man. "My father was ó "
"What do you know?" asked Roberts, returning to English.
"Flute, fiddle, horn, and ó"
"Show me your daddles." Williams lifted his hands. "Either your music is so fine that youíre spared aloft, or Success is your first."
"Heís a poor hand," interrupted Bunch.
"Quiet," ordered Roberts sharply.
"My fatheró" said Williams. "I wandered to Plymouth."
"What else? Your name?"
"William Williams. I readó"
"Do you write?" asked Roberts.
"With a fine hand."
"He canít stop it," said Bunch. "Bosunís going to whip him, canít hear the call when his handís in ink."
"Enough," barked Roberts, and they settled into silence as they approached the side of the Rover, the cacophony rising from above, Williams clutching his papers for comfort.
When the pair arrived on the Rover they discovered that the kegs of the Success had already been tapped and that the crew were spread in drunken disorder. Music was forthcoming from the quarterdeck: the banging of drums, the fiddle, and the splutter of a reeling flautist. Williams stared hard at the scene. He had never seen any man other than an officer stretch upon the quarterdeck, and never would a man have approached it wearing anything save his Sundays. Roberts strode between his men, eyes weighing and surveying.
Amid calls Bunch and Williams staggered below to the foícísle with their sea-chests. The quartermaster, Sympson, accompanied them. He was a thin man, scrawny in sunlight and lean in shade. His brow was marked by three firm lines of worry.
"Mr. Sympson?" asked Williams in the foícísle.
"Lord Sympson," corrected the quartermaster.
"Are there many Lords on the Rover?" asked Williams, while Bunch stood by in silence.
"Any commoners?" enquired Williams.
"You two for a start," said Sympson, with a smile notable for the manner in which all his teeth leaned towards his right ear, like trees bending in a gale. He waved them back on deck, so that they might celebrate their freedom with a cup.
A stranger approached the two recruits by the mizzen mast. He paused beside the sorry figure of the bloated Williams and pushed a finger into his gut.
"Who articled lard?" asked the man.
"íTis a Welsh fiddler, Lord Kennedy," said Roberts from the quarterdeck. He tipped his tricorn before heading below.
"What use is a man like this?" called Kennedy after his captain had disappeared, pointing at Williams as if he were a dumb beast. He spoke not six inches from Williamsís face, so that the Welshman might have guessed his last three drinks. "Fat puppies can break royals, slow down ships in the chase. Explain the shape."
"Iím the shape of Wales," grinned Williams, taking a small step back.
"And half its size," said Kennedy and pushed at his gut again. "Now donít offend me, fiddler, but make my friend and play a tune."
"What shall I play?"
"The fiddle, you gundiguts," said Kennedy, and Williams was doused in laughter. He wanted to break a joint for every rum-soaked chuckle. A cannikin came flying over from the main deck and caught him square on the chest. It was thought hilarious.
Williams was handed fiddle and bow and he began in the middle of a jig where the notes moved so fast that they were barely sounded before the fingers had leapt to another string and then to another, and so on until it seemed as if there were a brother echo who matched his moves. The pounding ache of his head was supplanted by anger. Laughter died under his fury and Robertsís crew, who had suffered under drums and horns and piccolos, were held silent for almost a minute by the dance of a bow and a set of cheap strings. And then, as suddenly as it had started, Williamsís fiddle began to imitate a sailorís work chanty and the chorus went up and drink was poured into his mouth, seeping over his instrument as he played. Every seaman relied on his hands, and hands relied on fingers, and for a man to play a fiddle like Williams it meant that he knew how to use both thumbs and eights, and the speed indicated that not one was broken. To most it meant that, besides the music, even if he wasnít a good seaman he had been a lucky one.
On the Rover, there were variations of light but no day or night, no correlation between sleep and darkness. Time was kept with the turning of sand within a glass on the half hour, and the accompaniment of a ringing bell. But when hammocks are strung as close as sheaves in a wheat field, and when gun ports are latched and the sun barred, and lanterns are the sole source of illumination, then gloom is permanent. Add a hold filled with more liquor than water, and a crew that doubled the shipís design, then wooziness overtakes alacrity. All were above, all drunk, some stupefied, leaving Roberts in peace to visit the foícísle. He held a bullís-eye lantern ahead, taking little time to locate the sea-chests of the forced recruits.
Both locks were open. The contents of neither sea-chest surprised him. Bunchís, merely clothes for a youth bridging the years between child and man and a small pouch of silver coin. Williamsís chest contained two books, a bottle of ink, and an oilskin, within which a small wad of papers was tightly rolled. Roberts plucked an early page and held it before the lantern.
I have two brothers in the church, two in King Georgeís pay and three dead sisters buried under our great oak at home. My father did not mourn our mother, but sent his children unto the world, dissolving his family with a sprinkle of gold. I was given a letter of introduction to a man of some note down Grub Street, fifty guineas, and was pointed east. I was content. I slept in a meadow near a village called Fulham, close on London, and woke with neither money, letter, nor coat. To my surprise, I remained content. Did I not think of my brothers, you ask? Had you begged them for my description, they would have looked at one another till one spoke, saying, "Why, William is the youngest." And one would nod, and then all would nod like merry milch cows. You will call my disdain pride, but to me, tis a mingling of patience and fervour. Have not men gone before me? Have they not risen on adventure and merit? Do they not return from journeys, and shine all the greater for their change in fortune? It is an honest intent, I think, to wish to return and cite, "Presume not that I am the thing I was."
Roberts understood little; used only to the names of stars and seas, the study of books had escaped him. Instead, he stared at the shape of the words, the way they leaned and held their lines in a regimented fashion. Though he could not grasp a single phrase, he believed he had learned much of Williams. From the fact that he wrote, he deduced him a learned man. From the manner in which he had clutched his papers aboard the gig Roberts knew the value the youth placed upon his own words. The order of the characters showed a precise and careful man. He folded the sheet along its well-worn crease and slid the papers back into the oilskin.
Coast of Guinea, West Africa
Williams refolded his journal and pushed it deep within his coat pocket. He wore no shirt, and as he laid his head back against the deck, his belly rose to keep watch while he rested. It was an empty night, with neither wind nor stars. The ocean, solid as a sea-chest, ran level from the Success to meet the shores of Guinea, three leagues distant. Listening to the treacly drippings of tar falling from the shrouds, he thought only of the surfeit of African heat. Even the mutterings of the slaves shackled tight in pairs could not distract Williams. He ignored the dialects of the different tribes assembled beneath as they gathered in chants and faded in murmurs like pleading breezes tugging them shoreward. Williams's eyes fluttered with sleep until his jellied middle shivered from a sharp kick.
He sat upright.
"Twice now," said the bosun, "you've shunned your watch."
"What," asked Williams, "is the point of holding watch in calm seas and a black night where I cannot see a foot before my face?"
"Below with you," answered the bosun. "Captain shall hear."
Williams hoisted himself to his feet, retied the rope belt about his ducks, and, ignoring his bosun, headed below to the fo'c'sle. The captain had forgiven him before, taken him aside, thanked him for his fine efforts pursing for the ship, and then threatened him with a whipping should he fail at his duties again. Both men knew that Williams was not a sailor, that he had been seized and pressed into service near Plymouth. Yet Williams understood the captain's leaning. A slaver does not carry passengers, and though he might purse the ship, make sense of her accounts, and entertain the crew with a fiddle, there were no kind words for poor sailors. Few on board did more than nod in his direction. Even the cabin boy, Phineas Bunch, a pock-faced child from Clerkenwell, reserved the worst of his words for Williams. His heaviness, youth, and education were marks against him and he knew that he dwelled in a liminal land between crew, slaves, and captain. Williams was valued only by himself.
As always, Williams breathed through his mouth for his first minutes in the fo'c'sle. The stink of the unwashed crew and the heavy smell of bodies seemed to have been absorbed by the planking. Even the timbers of the ship sweated in the heat, reeking of the bilge water below that gurgled and frothed in the gentlest of swells. Williams rolled his heavy frame into his canvas hammock, and though he would not be able to confide in his journal until light, he composed tomorrowís entry in his head:
The captain remains upriver for the fourth day, disappeared with his cask of silks and India wipes, and shall return with Negroes. Enough, I hope, so that we may sail again. What could I do, but resign myself to this journey, pretend it a chosen adventure, when Africa lay before me? I am now within sight of her, can smell the coast, and yet no liberty is granted to those who were pressed aboard.
They fear I might run, but where to? There is much I would run from, not officers, but the crew. Not the bosun, but the boys, such as Bunch. They are shameless, pushing laughter on me when most would let me be. I have five years on them, though you might suppose it reversed. They have sailed before. It is all that counts aboard the Success.
Williams opened his eyes in the gloom of the fo'c'sle and stared. The middle watch was above, just four men, yet the padding of many feet sounded through the planking. He pushed himself upright. Across from him he could see Bunch, Smith, and Wallis sitting in similar positions, all staring upward, their eyes tracing the sound of the steps.
"We're boarded," hissed Wallis.
The sharp crack of metals meeting rang once. Then many voices erupted. Williams could only distinguish the tones of his bosun, speaking loudly, calling for calm. He wrestled out of his canvas hammock and stood upright.
"Stay," ordered Wallis in a whisper.
Ignoring his fellow deckhand, Williams wrapped his journal in oil skins and slid it within his coat, then left the fo'c'sle with no greater defense than gritted fists and headed for the weather deck. He heard the voices grow louder, but his frayed mind could not figure them apart as they rose together like garbled thunder. Putting one foot ahead of another, blood pounding and sweat greasing his palms, he climbed toward the night, only to be relieved of consciousness by the blow of a marlinespike to his head. It sent him backwards, his hands losing their grip, his body banging and turning against wooden struts, falling back to the gun deck.
From the hold, slaves were shouting upwards in Babel tongues for attention, not knowing who stood above them, buoyed by the hope that they were to be raised and returned to the coast. A pair of lanterns fought to light the weather deck, but their auras were weak and shadowed both the crew and the uninvited. Williams brought his hand to his egg-shell head and was relieved to find no blood, nor indentation. He felt the rain spit in his eyes, sat upright, and opened them to the sight of his own crew facing him. Their faces betrayed shock, as if they were witnessing a resurrection.
His smile at their confoundment was short-lived. Looking to his left and right, he saw the dead: one on either side of him, their stomachs down, toes against the deck, palms open, upturned, unmoving. Williams could not keep his eyes from them, trying to figure if they were his shipmates. Their stillness awed him. He studied them, expecting a shimmer of movement to betray them, like actors rising from their roles upon a stage. Through his throbbing head, Williams could hear his bosun calling him. Slowly, he crawled away from the dead.
The men of the Success were kept upon their deck throughout the night, save for their bosun who was ferried in his own gig into the darkness, along with the pittance of gold dust their captain had trusted to his ship. The wind gathered and pushed a heavy rain from the clouds above. It came at the huddled crew, so that they bowed their heads and closed their eyes, soaking them into shivers. None were permitted to speak and the night was endured in silence.
Williams cradled his head in his hands. All who looked upon him presumed that his skull must be sharp and swollen with pain. Yet he did not think of his fall, only of the taking of the Success. He could not answer the questions he asked himself. The ship had not been taken on his watch, but had it been approached through his sleep? Might he have heard the creak of an oar if he had stayed awake, and prevented the loss of goods and life?
Questions haunted him until dawn brought an end to the rain.
A three-masted ship lay anchored to the east and in first light, the crew of
the Success watched with relief as their bosun was returned to them. He was
accompanied by a man so finely dressed that Williams believed he would not
have been conspicuous in King Georgeís court. A suit of black silks, buckled
shoes that bore the polish of another manís hand, a fine lawn shirt with a
clean linen stock. Williams had not seen any so well rigged since he had
left his father's house.
Copyright 2000 by Nicholas Griffin