Want it by Thursday, October 25
Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.
Same Day shipping in Manhattan. See Details
"[A] crackling nautical history series...electric."--Wall Street Journal
American hero Commander Bliven Putnam returns to the sea to meet the deadliest threat to the United States since the Revolution.
At the opening of the War of 1812, the British control the most powerful navy on earth, and Americans are again victims of piracy. Bliven Putnam, late of the Barbary War, is dispatched to Charleston to outfit and take command of a new twenty-gun brig, the USS Tempest.
Prowling the South Atlantic in the Tempest, Bliven takes prizes and disrupts British merchant shipping, until he is overhauled, overmatched, and disastrously defeated by the frigate HMS Java. Taken aboard, he finds he recognizes two familiar faces from Naples: the Java's captain, Lord Arthur Kington, and his old friend, Sam Bandy, who has been pressed into British Service. As Bliven and Sam plan to foment mutiny among the captive crewmen, they cannot possibly know that another American ship looms over the horizon or that one of the most famous battles of the War of 1812 is about to begin. With exquisite detail and guns-blazing action, A Darker Sea illuminates an unforgettable period in American history.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Prologue: The Hound in Blue
In his cabin at the stern of the brig Althea, Sam Bandy dressed as he sipped the morning’s first cup of coffee, rich and full-bodied, from Martinique. Sped into Charleston on a fast French ship with a dry hold, it tasted of neither mold nor bilge water. He was lucky to have gotten it in, avoiding the picket of British cruisers who, in the never-ending mayhem of the Napoleonic wars, sought to sweep all French trade from the seas. It might well have ended in the private larder of an English frigate captain. Now he had brought a quarter-ton of it to Boston, tucked into his hold along with the cotton and rice that one expected to be exported from South Carolina.
Yes, the life of a merchant mariner suited him, and it endlessly amused him. If one wanted a bottle of rum in Charleston, the cane was grown in the West Indies, where it was rendered into sugar and its essential byproduct, molasses. Thence they were taken by ship and, passing almost within sight of Charleston, delivered all the way to Boston, or Newport. There the scores of Yankee distilleries manufactured the rum, which then had to be loaded and taken back south to Charleston, which was halfway back to the Caribbean. And money was made at each exchange.
Sam ascended the ladder topside, coffee in hand, snugging his hat upon his head—a blue felt Bremen flat cap that a German sailor had offered him in trade for his American Navy bicorn. Sam had surprised the German with how readily he accepted the exchange, for in truth he felt no sentimental attachment to it at all. There were several considerations that impelled him to separate from the Navy. The death of his father during the Barbary War and the disinterest of his brothers placed the responsibility for their Abbeville plantation on his shoulders. And the Navy’s penchant for furloughing junior officers for months at a time, and then recalling them without regard for the seasonal imperatives of planting or harvesting, he could not accommodate. Most important, on his voyage home from the Mediterranean on the Wasp, he had brought the daughter of the American former consul to Naples, and she had become his wife. Naturally he wished to provide her and their growing family the gracious life he had known, and shipping provided them a measure of comfort even beyond that of their neighbors.
And this would be a profitable trip. Their South Carolina cotton for the Yankee mills had brought him eighteen cents per pound and paid for the trip, leaving the rice, some indigo, and the Martinique coffee as pure profit. Topside, he observed his first officer, Simon Simpson, directing stevedores down into his hold. Simpson was astonishingly tall and brawny, dishfaced, with wild black hair; he knew his trade but was not overly bright, but then, apart from captains, what men who became merchant sailors were?
Their lack of schedule suited Sam; they had tied up halfway out the Long Wharf, selling until his hold was empty, and his taking on new cargo could not have passed more conveniently. As he reflected, Boston’s famous Paul Revere was in his mid-seventies, but still innovating, still trying his hand at new business. His late venture into foundry was a rousing success, and Simpson lined the bottom of Althea’s hold with cast-iron window weights, fireplace accoutrements—andirons, pokers—and stove backs. Nothing could have provided better ballast, and atop these he loaded barrels of salt fish, all securely tied down. This left room for fine desks and bookcases from the celebrated Mr. Gould. Upon Sam’s own speculation, apart from that of his co-owners of the ship, he visited Mr. Fisk’s shop and bought a quantity of his delicate fancy card tables and side chairs, for which he expected the ladies of Charleston to profit him most handsome. Fisk’s lyre-backed chairs were in the style of Hepplewhite of London, and when Sam visited Fisk and Son to make the purchase, it caught his ear that more than one patron expressed his pleasure that Fisk’s fine workmanship has soured the market for Hepplewhite itself, so disgruntled had people become with the British interference with their trade.
The Long Wharf, with its glimpse of Faneuil Hall at its head, the taverns he had frequented in their nights here, the dockside commotion, the frequent squeals of seagulls, the salt air beyond his West Indies coffee, all left him deeply happy, but he was ready to go home. “Mr. Simpson!” he called out.
Simpson left his station at the hatch and joined him by the wheel. “Good morning, Captain.”
“Good morning, Mr. Simpson. The tide begins to run in three hours. Can we be ready by then?”
“No question of it, we are almost finished.”
“Excellent. Now, if you please, divert two of those Fisk chairs to my cabin. There you will find on my desk a package, addressed to the Putnam family in Litchfield, Connecticut. Take it to the post office and dispatch it. The Port Authority is right close by there. Arrange a pilot for us, come back, check the stores, and prepare to get under way.”
Ah, the Putnams. Sam did not miss the Navy, but he missed Bliven Putnam. Their midshipman’s schooling together on the Enterprise, their learning the handling of sabres together, their fighting Barbary corsairs together, even their fumbling attempts to bridge the cultural gap between Connecticut and South Carolina, and their punishment together at the masthead of the President mandated by Commodore James Barron for their having fought each other all had bonded them in a way that would have been imperishable even had Barron not compelled them to swear their friendship to each other. Sam could not absent himself from the ship for a week, which would gain him only a day’s visit to Litchfield, but he could send Bliven a sack of this rich coffee.
By ten Simpson had returned, and Sam hoisted the flags, signaling his imminent departure. With crew counted and hatch secured, Sam cast off, moving ever so slowly under a single jib and topsail into the harbor. The wind was from the northwest, which could not have served them better.
At the end of the wharf the pilot boat appeared, a small, sleek, low-waisted schooner, which hoisted Althea’s name in signal flags. Sam answered and fell in behind her gratefully. In Boston’s shallow bay the tides ran swiftly; once, he visited the other side of the city when the tide fell just to see the sight of Back Bay emptying out as fast as a man could walk; such flats were no place to get trapped. But this pilot very clearly knew what he was doing; the schooner was under a full set, and Sam had to loose his courses to keep up. They passed through the channel between Long and Deer Islands, and could see Lovell Island off their starboard bow. At this point the pilot came about, wishing Althea fair sailing; Sam signaled his thanks and steered east-southeast for the northern curl of Cape Cod. If the wind held, they should round the cape and be halfway down that seemingly interminable spit of sand when dark fell. He would be safe on a southerly course and well clear of Nantucket by morning, when he could set a new course, if the wind permitted, west-southwest for Long Island.
If it were not for the knowledge of going home, Sam would not relish the southward voyage. South by west was the most direct course to Cape Hatteras, but that would place him in the very teeth of the irresistible, opposing push of the Gulf Current. More distant in miles but infinitely faster it was to steer closer inshore along the mid-Atlantic and follow the eddying cold-water currents that would aid him.
Their seventh day out, Sam awoke to the accustomed clatter of the cook setting the tray of his breakfast on his desk. He did not mind, for every morning it reminded him of the glorious luxury of not being in the Navy, that every morning there were eggs and bacon and toasted bread for breakfast. On this voyage he did rather feel obligated to share his Martinique coffee with the crew, but it was a small cost to see the men feeling favored, and thus working with a more congenial will.
He dressed and glanced at a chart on the table, estimating in rough how far they must have come during the night. Topside at the wheel he saw his tall, wire-haired first mate, keeping a firm grip on the wheel in a stout wind from their starboard quarter. “Good morning, Mr. Simpson.”
“Good morning, Captain.”
Sam regarded the wind and the set of sails. “Steer east-sou’east until noon, then make due south.”
“Very good, sir, east-sou’east she comes.” Simple Simpson eased the helm a few points to port.
There was no need to explain why. Their southerly course had brought them almost to the outer banks of North Carolina. Now it was necessary to stand out far enough to avoid those coastal shoals whose locations changed with every storm, shallows that had brought numberless crews to grief, yet not stand so far out as to meet the strongest opposition of the Gulf Current, which here compressed as it rounded the Hatteras Cape and was here at its swiftest. If they made that mistake they could labor all day with their sails bellied full out and end the day not five miles farther on than when they started. It was a delicate calculation, but they would know if they went too far, for old sailors had many times told Sam, and he had himself once discovered the truth of it, that the inner edge of the warm Gulf Current was so sharp and sudden that in crossing it, water brought up from the bow and the stern might be twenty degrees different in temperature.
At the same moment in the sea cabin of His Majesty’s sloop-of-war Hound, twenty-two guns, Captain Lord Arthur Kington in his dressing gown poured himself a glass of Madeira. Two weeks out of Halifax, bound for Bermuda, but empty-handed. They had not raised a single French sail to engage, nor even an American merchant to board and harvest some pressed men. For days now they had been plowing through the drifting mess of the Sargasso Sea, no doubt snagging strands of the olive-brown weeds that would hang on their barnacles and slow them down.
How in bloody hell could he have fallen from command of a seventy-four- to a twenty-two-gun sloop? For six years he had sailed in purgatory like the Flying Dutchman, each morning asking and answering the same question of himself, unable to break the cycle of it. It was difficult to comprehend how that incident in Naples had precipitated such a consequence. In attempting the apprehension of a deserter from a dockside tavern he and everyone else knew he was carrying out Crown policy. His fault, apparently, lay in attending a diplomatic reception while his press gang was assaulted and bested by a clot of drunken American sailors. No captain of a seventy-four would be seen in the company of his press gang; the notion was absurd, and he the son of a duke. What did they expect of him? Apparently, that his press gang prey only upon victims foreign or domestic, beyond the protective circle of their shipmates. It was his lieutenant on the Hector who had acted imprudently, but in the long-established calculus of the Royal Navy, he as captain should have foreseen such a circumstance and ordered his lieutenant to greater caution. That junior officer had not suffered for the act, he had later been raised from the Hector’s third officer to second, but it was Kington himself who, in response to the diplomatic stink that the Americans had fomented, had to be punished. And yet he wondered if there were not more to it, whether some key bureaucrat in the Admiralty had simply conceived a dislike for him.
At least the Admiralty had broken him in command only and not in rank, an admission that they needed his service as one who would willingly overhaul vessels on the high seas and take off what men were needed to crew His Majesty’s ships. The need was bottomless, for desertions were constant, and Napoleon simply would not be crushed. Kington’s conclusion was that his value to the Navy lay in impressing men in ways that could not be readily discovered, and in six years at this he had come to excel. The Navy needed him but would not acknowledge him; it was a circumstance that left him feeling ill used. Yet, if he did but do his duty, without complaint, and without overmuch using family influence on the Admiralty, he would work his way back up to his former station. This was certain, for even now a new frigate was waiting for him in Bermuda to take command once he brought in the Hound with a merchant prize or two, and some well-broken American sailors.
Thus he served, secure in the knowledge that the Royal Navy needed pressed men more than ever—and more particularly they needed him, for after that affair with the American frigate Chesapeake, their need for impressment was forced into still greater subterfuge. Infinitely more so than Naples, the Leopard–Chesapeake encounter had altered the dynamics of impressment. Doubtless, it had been less than prudent, or at least less than sporting, for Post Captain Humphreys of H.M.S. Leopard to pour broadsides into the unprepared American frigate in peacetime, but it was open and obvious that the Americans had been enlisting British deserters into their crews. The American captain, some fellow named Barron, had been court-martialed and suspended for not fighting his ship to the last, irrespective of the hopelessness of the contest.
Kington screwed up his mouth into a smile. That said much for the American frame of mind, but not their practicality. Barron had had no chance. His guns were unloaded, rolled in, their tompions in place. His decks were piled with stores in preparation for a long cruise; when approached by the Leopard, Barron, knowing they were not at war with Britain, had not beat to quarters. Had he resisted, his crew would have been slaughtered as they limbered up the guns. As it was, the American was lucky to lose only four killed and eighteen, including Barron himself, wounded. Humphreys had seized four men from the Chesapeake, and then, the worst insult of all, refused Barron’s surrender—they were not at war, after all—and left him there on his floating wreck. God help them if they ever encountered Barron again, he would sell his life very dearly indeed.
Of the four men Humphreys had seized, one was a Canadian, whom he hanged. They did have some color of justification for taking Canadians, to whom the Americans presumed to grant naturalized citizenship. How dare they? His Majesty’s government of course refused to recognize American naturalization. They were naval pretenders even as they were still pretenders as a nation, and no great attention need be paid them except for taking likely-looking seamen.
Now Kington knew that his exile was at an end; a new command awaited him in Bermuda, but he had concluded that he could not enter empty-handed, and he had turned to the northwest, crossing and riding the Gulf Current into the waters of the American coastal trade. Even as he was thinking they must sight a vessel on this day, he cocked his head at the faint cry above the deck overhead, of deck, sail ho. He straightened his dressing gown and seated himself at his desk, waiting for the rap at his door, which came only a moment later. “Enter,” he said quietly.
“Beg pardon, m’lord.” A lieutenant stood at attention and made his respects. “The lookout has sighted a ship bearing to the southwest.”
Kington affected not to look up from the papers on his desk. “What do you make of her?”
“An American merchantman, m’lord, a large brig, low in the water, heading south.”
“Very well. Make all sail to overtake her. I will come up.”
“Very good, m’lord.” The lieutenant made his respects again and departed.
Kington pulled a pair of brilliant white silk stockings up his calves, and then donned equally white knee breeches, which he fastened at the waist and knees. The talk was that the Royal Navy was going to change at any time to trousers for officers, as well as the enlisted men, who already wore them. He hated the notion. Trousers—inelegant, egalitarian, shapeless—suitable for the common sailors but certainly not for officers. After regarding his shiny white calves in the mirror, he buckled his sword about his waist and selected a coat from his wardrobe, the blue frock, undress but bearing the dual epaulettes that signified a captain of more than three years’ experience. It was hard to bear how many years, since Naples, but his circumstances would improve soon enough. He took up his glass and ascended the ladder to the quarterdeck.
The courses blocked his view down the deck, and he slung an arm through the mizzen’s starboard ratlines, leaned out and focused the American in his glass. Yes, it was a large brig, low and slow; they were gaining on him rapidly and he could not but have seen him. This should be a good day.
“What is your pleasure, m’lord? Shall you hail him?”
“Beat to quarters, Mr. Evans, ready your starboard bow chaser. At six hundred yards put a shot through his rigging. That will hail him well enough.”
“Beat to quarters!” Evans barked to the bosun, and an instant later the ship leapt to life in response to the drum’s tattoo. Both officers knew this was probably unnecessary when their quarry was an apparently unarmed merchant vessel, but both knew equally that an overawing display of firepower was the surest guarantor of a passive reception.
Aboard the Althea, Sam Bandy had been alerted to the approach of the British sloop and followed her through his glass, noting the deployment of starboard studding sails to increase her speed. He was studying her even as he saw the flash and smoke of her bow chaser; its booming report reached him almost simultaneously with the singing of a ball through his rigging. He started and shot his gaze upward at a loud pop, and beheld a rip in the main topsail, one edge flapping in the wind. He turned his head to the right, waiting for and then seeing the small splash a hundred yards out or more. Unarmed and laden too heavily to run, he had no choice but to furl his sails and wait for what fate should bring.
“She is bringing in her sails, m’lord,” said Evans. “It looks as if she means no resistance.”
“Good,” said Kington. “Have the bosun swing out the cutter. You and I will go over with ten Marines for escort.”
At the cutter’s approach, Sam had a rope boarding ladder lowered. Eight Marines came smartly up in coats of brilliant scarlet, flanking the ladder, then two officers in blue frocks, and two more Marines.
Bandy faced them, arms akimbo, several paces in front of his curious and apprehensive crew.
“I am Captain Lord Arthur Kington, of His Majesty’s sloop-of-war Hound. Are you the master of this vessel?”
“I am Samuel Bandy, captain of the brig Althea.” Sam squared his shoulders against him. “By what right do you stop an American ship in international waters?” he demanded.
“By the authority of Orders in Council of His Majesty’s government,” he said highly. “We are at war with France, and we are charged to stop ships, search for deserters, and seize ships which are carrying contraband bound for French ports. What is your cargo?”
“Your orders are of no effect upon American ships.”
“Mr. . . . Bandy, my broadside gives me all the authority I need. I ask you again, what is your cargo?”
“Salt fish, and kitchenware, and furniture.”
“We are seven days out of Boston, bound for Charleston.”
“I see. I require to see your manifest, and after that to inspect your hold. Take us down to your cabin.”
Sam clattered down the ladder to his small cabin, followed by the two officers and behind them two of the Marines. From a shelf he pulled the log book and extracted the three pages of manifest, detailing his cargo to the last item.
He handed the papers over to Kington, who rattled the sheets as he barely glanced at them before folding them back along their existing creases and tucking them into his coat pocket. “Well, I say, you are a lively-looking fellow,” said Kington.
Sam squinted and shook his head. “What?”
“We are searching for a Canadian deserter who bears the singularly appropriate name of Lively. Do you claim that the name means nothing to you?”
Sam was truculent. “Of course it means nothing to me. Why should it?”
“Because”—Kington looked Sam down and up and down again—“he stands about five feet nine inches, weight thirteen stone, very fair complected, reddish to blond hair.” He looked more closely. “Blue eyes. Did you really believe we would never discover you?”
“Damn your eyes, I am Samuel Bandy of South Carolina, captain and part owner of this vessel!”
Kington crossed his arms doubtfully. “Well, your accent is plausible. Still, that can be affected. Let me see your protection.”
“God damn it, I am the captain! I don’t carry proof of my citizenship!”
Kington tossed his head lightly. “Well, then.”
“Wait, I have my master’s license. Wait.” This was a document that he never expected that he would have to produce. He knew it was in a pouch of papers in his sea chest, and he dropped to his knees and flung open its lid.
“Hold!” barked Kington. The Marines who flanked him lowered their muskets at him. “Move very slowly.”
“Bastard,” muttered Sam. He rose again, unfolding his master’s license and handing it to Kington, who glanced about the cabin.
“The light in here is very poor.” He ambled over to the stern windows and opened one, sitting on its sill and leaning partly outside. “Now, let us see.” He mumbled the lines as he read them. “Oh, dear!” He opened his fingers and the paper fluttered down to the rolling sea.
Sam swelled up but checked himself as the Marines took a half-step forward en garde.
Kington tapped his index finger against his chin. “Perhaps you are who you say you are, but perhaps not. You answer the wanted man’s description too closely to dismiss the matter. Prudence dictates I shall bring you to Bermuda for more certain identification.”
“Wait a minute, I know you!” Sam shook his head. “From where do I know you?”
Kington looked at him with his haughty expectation.
Sam’s finger shot out at him. “Naples! After the war, the Barbary War, the American consulate, you had an altercation with Commodore Preble.”
“Indeed? I cannot say that I remember you at all. I do remember one particularly impudent lieutenant, but it was not you. Mr. Evans?”
“We will select a prize crew to take this vessel to Bermuda. Poll the American crewmen. Those who carry protections and wish to go home we will put ashore when we reach Bermuda and they can catch a ship home as best they can. Naturally, any who wish to volunteer into His Majesty’s service will be welcome to enlist.” The two officers chuckled. Once carried to Bermuda, it could take months for some neutral ship to carry them home again.
“You’re just a damned pirate,” spat Sam. He knew that Kington would have no trouble finding enlistments among his crew. In the American merchant service, as in the Navy, a fair portion of his sailors went to sea to escape their problems on land. Among the men were surely some whose fortunes had sunk so low—wanted by the law, or in the shadow of debtors’ prison—that a foreign ship seemed as viable an escape as walking into the Western wilderness, with the advantage that there were no bears or Indians. Given that they had no way home from Bermuda, it was tantamount to impressment just the same.
Kington smirked. “Damn fine chairs. Hepplewhite, by the make?”
“Fisk of Boston, damn you, and so stamped on the back of each.” He swept an arm out grandly. “But please, have them. They will show very fine in a pirate’s cabin.”
“That remark,” said Kington quietly, “will cost you six lashes, as the lightest of warnings. Provoke me further and you will regret it in proportion. Now, will you come quietly, or must we bind you? Before you answer, let me warn you that if you give me your parole to submit and then resist, I will surely hang you. I have no scruple about it.”
“No, I have no doubt of that.” He inclined his head toward a pine wardrobe. “Am I allowed to keep my clothes?”
“Certainly not. You will be fitted out in His Majesty’s uniform for an able seaman.” He glanced down. “You may keep your shoes, however. Shoes are in short supply.”
“What of my clothes?”
“We will keep them safe. If your story proves out, they will be returned to you.”
“Well, they are too large for you, at any rate. But perhaps your tailor can take them in for you.”
“Six more lashes, and I urge you, do not build up a large account.”
The swell on this morning was easy, as two Marines descended the boarding ladder to their cutter. Kington scanned about Althea’s deck and remembered that he had not inspected the hold. Ah, well. He had the manifest, and in this circumstance judged that sufficient. He had the ship; the nature of the cargo they could ascertain at leisure.
“Inspect the crew for their protections. I will send the cutter back with a prize crew. Those who wish to enlist with us send back across with the boat. With luck, it will be an even exchange and we will both have a full complement. Then you will follow me to Bermuda.”
“Very good, m’lord.” He made his respects as Kington and the remaining Marines descended to the cutter.
As they approached the sloop, Sam saw that she had turned a bit in the current, and he could make out the name hound freshly painted under her stern windows. Given his captivity, Sam debated whether he should open a conversation with this captain, try to reach at least a minimal respect between them, and weighed that against his visceral disgust with him, his almost visual desire to see him swinging on a noose.
“She is a handsome enough vessel,” he ventured. “Twenty-two, by the look of her?”
Kington regarded him with some surprise. “You have a practiced eye, Mr. Lively. You have estimated her exactly.”
“At fourteen I was a midshipman in the Enterprise, twelve, and then a lieutenant in the Constitution, forty-four,” he stated quietly. “Some of that time we were in company with the John Adams, twenty-four, and your ship seems only the slightest degree smaller. And if you please, Captain, my name is Samuel Bandy, as you will discover upon a full investigation of the matter.”
Kington perceived exactly what Sam was doing. “We shall see. On my ship, I am addressed as ‘my lord,’ and you will oblige me by adopting the custom.”
Sam felt as though his jaw would break if he did so, but he swallowed his gorge and said, “Whatever you say, my lord.” Those two words, from the mouth of any American, sounded ridiculous.
As soon as they tied up, Kington scaled the boarding ladder first, and Sam followed, finding the captain already engaged with his second officer, a smallish, auburn-haired man with freckles, named Crawford. Once the Marines were up, a well-armed prize crew descended and pulled away. It took half an hour to make the exchange on the Althea, and the cutter returned with Evans and five of Sam’s crew who had determined to throw in with the English.
As soon as they came alongside, lines went tumbling down from the davits that curled out overhead. Crewmen made them fast to the eyebolts on the cutter’s bow and stern, and as soon as the last of the men stood on deck the cutter came up after them by jerks. Sam marked which of his men had turned coat and determined not to speak to them, even as he admitted to himself that they were not entirely beyond his sympathy. As the cutter was made secure in the davits Sam heard the orders barked and saw the yards braced up as they tacked and settled on a course east-nor’east, under full sail, close hauled but not straining, running full-and-by. Kington may be a miserable wretch, he thought, but he knew how to use the wind. Sam peered astern and saw his Althea following suit. At least, he thought, they were on their way to somewhere.
“Well, Lively.” It was Kington’s voice, and Sam turned to face him. “I will say that your attempt at conversation was noted down in your favor, as perhaps indicating a quiescent bearing. We are bound for Bermuda, from where inquiries will be made. If you prove to be who you say you are, you will be set at liberty.”
“And my ship?”
“That I cannot promise. But I tell you, if we find that you are who I think you are, you must hang. Not from my personal animus, understand, but because it is the law.”
Sam’s words were ready that when he was discovered to be a fellow officer, Kington would oblige him with satisfaction, but he barred the words from passing his lips, calculating that it would be his own death sentence.
“As it is,” said Kington, “you have an account and we must square it. Mr. Crawford.”
“All hands on deck to witness punishment. Except”—he paused, considering—“except those five new enlistments; keep them below with the purser to get their uniforms.” He looked at Sam. “I will spare you that. Bosun, do your duty.”
“Aye, m’lord,” replied a very deep voice. Sam regarded the bosun, middle-aged, gray and very curly hair, missing teeth, skin so salt-cured that he might well have been pulled from a cask in the meat stores. “Come along with ye,” he said.
This shockingly grizzled man seized Sam tightly by an upper arm and led him across the thirty-foot beam of the ship. “Ordinarily,” said the bosun so quietly that only Sam could hear, “ripping down your shirt is part of the show, but ’tis such a fine shirt, I will give you the opportunity to remove it yourself and lay it aside.”
Glowering, Sam began pulling the shirttails out of his trousers. “I have heard of an officer and gentleman, but never a bosun and gentleman. Thank you.”
Four of the crew leaned a heavy hatch grate against the mainmast’s starboard ratlines, at enough of an angle that he could not keep balance on his own feet, yet vertical enough that the crew could see the spectacle.
“Now lie you up against it,” said the bosun. “Stretch up your arms.” As soon as Sam extended his arms, crewmen seized his hands and bound them, threading the rope through the openings in the wooden mesh. From the corner of his eye Sam spied the bosun’s mate shaking out a cat, running his fingers down its separate strands of twisted hemp to each end, picking off the bits of flesh from the tassels left from when it was last used, finally nodding to the bosun.
The bosun made his respects to the officers on the quarterdeck, calling out, “Ready to commence punishment.”
The officers had been at their ease but followed Kington’s lead in snugging his bicorne down on his head. “One dozen,” he pronounced.
Sam steadied himself, concentrating at that instant on the lapping hiss of the water as it slid by, the creaking of the rigging, the warmth of the morning sun on his back. He knew that his life, or rather the way he regarded life, would never be the same after this morning. He was parsing how he would change, as he heard the cat’s tails sing for an instant through the air before slapping across his back, searing like a great brand of fire laid across the flesh. He snapped taut against the ropes that spread his arms, but he made no sound. His teeth clenched, even as he determined that he would die before giving Kington the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
“One,” announced the bosun, as the bosun’s mate shook out the tails behind him for a second strike.
He would withstand all dozen lashes, he would stand them by conjuring in his mind’s eye himself, standing over Kington’s broken body. Whatever it took and however long, he swore to himself that he would have his vengeance. There was a second quick whish of air and a second burning slap on his back, lower down. He clenched his teeth again but uttered nothing.
“Two,” intoned the bosun.
Nor was it lost on him that he had been taken into slavery and whipped. He, who had grown up on a plantation and been wet-nursed and clothed and tended by slaves, and he who was now a master of dozens, had never in his life whipped a slave, nor seen one whipped. He knew that it happened, and he had seen the evidence of it in the scarred-over welts on the backs of others’ slaves, mostly on those belonging to white trash who vented their own social envy upon the two or three hapless blacks in their power. Such drivers were not respected. Nevertheless, now he understood what it felt like. Whish, splat!
“Three,” declared the bosun.
The Indians, he thought. He had heard of Indians beyond the woods who invent ceremonies and tortures and subject their young men to them, giving them the privilege of demonstrating their bravery, their disregard for pain. Those who passed this test became warriors; those who did not—such shame was not to be countenanced. If Indian boys could stand such, a Southern gentleman must surely be able to bear that, or more. Whish, splat!
“Four,” called out the bosun.
After twelve lashes the strain had caused the sweat to pour down Sam’s brow. As he was untied from the hatch grate he found himself unable to release the tension knotted in his back. Upon standing straight, he felt liquid trickle down his back, but he had no way of knowing if it was also sweat or blood, and he was glad he could not see it. He had no desire to surmise how his broad white back was now scarred for life. He felt faint, and he summoned every ounce of rage and resolve not to fall; he would not give such pleasure to this horror of a human being who now held him in his power.
An officer in a blue coat, different, not a frock but a cutaway with gold buttons, stepped forward and touched Sam’s back in several places with a white handkerchief, which came away streaked with crimson. “I am Dr. Kite,” he said quietly, “ship’s surgeon. You had best come with me, I will tend to your wounds.”
Further civility was the last thing Sam had expected. “Yes. Yes, of course, thank you.”
“Can you manage the ladder?”
“I think so.”
The bosun handed Sam his shirt and whispered hoarsely, “Well done, Yankee lad. Keep up your courage, and for God’s sake do nothing stupid. We will speak at a later time.”
Sam held the shirt to his sweating chest and stomach as they went down. The sloop Hound was small enough that she mounted all her guns on the spar deck; the ladder descended to the single berth deck.
Kite led him forward of the galley to the sick bay and indicated a narrow berth along the curve of the hull. He pointed and said, “Lie on your belly.”
Sam slipped off his shoes and did as he was bidden, watching the surgeon extract a bottle and a white cloth from a wooden chest.
“This will sting,” said Kite. “It is an astringent.” The pain was sharp and more localized than the lashes themselves had been, but not nearly as overwhelming. As the surgeon dabbed at the slices into his skin he said, “They tell me you served in the Constitution. Is that true?”
“Then you were acquainted with the surgeon on that vessel?”
“Dr. Cutbush, yes, very well.”
“Did you know he is quite famous? What can you tell me about him?”
“Vastly skilled, but also very amiable.” Sam started to turn onto his side to face Kite as he spoke, but a firm hand pressed him down to keep him on his stomach.
“Tell me about him, but lie still, I am not done.”
Sam related his and Bliven’s first day on the Constitution, Cutbush having met them on deck and seen to their comfort, of his fascination with ancient doctors and medicine, an element which he did not know personally but which Bliven had told him about.
“You have gratified my curiosity very well,” Kite said at last. “Listen to me now. I want you to lie quietly on your belly until we know the bleeding has stopped. Do you feel like you could eat something?”
“There are things I must tend to, but I will have a meal brought to you. They tell me we are only two days from Bermuda. I am going to excuse you from duty until then; that will give you a chance to heal properly.”
“When I get home,” said Sam, not admitting to himself that he was unsure whether or when he would see home again, “and make a report to the Navy, I will mention your kindness prominently.”
Kite departed, and Sam heard Evans the first officer accost him. “How is he, Bones?”
“As one might expect after a dozen lashes. Is the captain in his cabin?”
“I believe he is.”
Kite strode the length of the berth deck, pausing to instruct the bosun to take Sam a meal when it was time to eat, before rapping on the door of the captain’s cabin.
“Enter,” the voice issued from within.
“M’lord, I have reason to believe that the captain of that American prize is indeed who he says he is.”
Kington was seated at his desk. “Oh, and why is that?”
“Sir, I questioned him as I treated him. He claims to have served in the American frigate Constitution. The surgeon on that vessel, Dr. Cutbush, I know well from a call I made in Philadelphia many years ago. He knew the name, and he describes him so exactly, I have no doubt he is telling the truth. He would have been a very young lieutenant during the Barbary conflict, and cannot be the man you suspect.”
“Thank you for telling me, Dr. Kite.” When he didn’t move, Kington asked, “Is there something more, Doctor?”
“M’lord, it occurs to me that when we reach port and an inquiry is opened, you will of course wish me to offer these facts into the record.”
The next moment of tense silence freighted infinitely more conversation that what had orally passed to that point, that wonderful silence of polite exchange which indicates that the true message conveyed is other and greater than what was uttered. Both men recognized the impasse, that Kite had interposed himself in a matter not his concern, but to which Kington was vulnerable because he might have been treading at the very edge even of the freewheeling practice of impressment.
“You will be informed,” said Kington at last. “You may return to your duties.”
“M’lord.” Kite made his respects but delayed withdrawing just long enough for Kington to look at him again, into his eyes, and realize that his intention was serious. Kite clattered up the ladder and sucked in the fresh salt air, recovering from his brazenness at challenging the captain in such a way, but also calm and satisfied that he had acted out of conscience, something that he was not sure he could still do.
Sam slept fitfully and had just opened his eyes when he counted the eight bells that signaled the onset of the first dog watch. Heavy steps approached, and he looked up to see the grizzled bosun standing over him, bearing a square wooden plate, a tin cup, a swatch of cloth, and a hammer. “Are ye hungry, Yankee lad?”
“I could eat, yes.” He sat up, trying not to crack the new scabs on his back. “May I know your name?”
“You will know me as Mr. White.” He set the square plate onto the thin mattress, and Sam beheld a shapeless mass of boiled beef, a small slather of peas, and a large rocklike biscuit.
Years had passed since Sam’s last exposure to ship’s biscuit. He looked up again, and White gave him a large mug of steaming tea and laid beside him a swatch of white cloth and a hammer. “I expect ye know of naval fare.”
“When I was in the American Navy, it was not much different among our men. I was a lieutenant; the officers made out somewhat better.”
“A word of advice, Yankee lad,” he said quietly. “Do not follow that course. Protesting your identity will gain you nothing. On this vessel your name is Lively, a suspected Canadian deserter who will be used for duty pending your execution. Now, the Navy does inquire into such things, and if you can make your case, you will be set at liberty. But until then, do not provoke the captain’s displeasure.”
“I understand,” said Sam.
“The surgeon has told me you are excused duty until we make port, so be guided by me, make yourself as little noticed as possible.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” Sam said, as White nodded curtly and disappeared. Left to regard his rations, Sam took a spoonful of peas, chewing them as he folded the biscuit into the white cloth. He pulled the thin mattress aside until the wood of the berth was exposed and hammered at the wrapping until the biscuit was broken up into small sherds, which he dumped into his tea to soften. He plunged a fork as deep as he could into the mass of beef, and he bit off a small chunk of it. It was hot and tasted of brine, and he knew it had not soaked long enough in the steep tub. He should eat it first, he thought, because it would make him devilish thirsty, and save the tea for last, for he did not know when he would be offered water.
Late in the next morning, Sam was roused from his bed by the bosun, who was accompanied by a brawny but dull-looking sailor. Motioned up the waist ladder, he found himself in a line, directly behind others whom he thought must be captives.
“We have raised Nelson Island off the starboard bow,” White told him quietly. “It is the practice when coming into port to shackle the pressed men.” Sam looked to the head of the line and saw the ship’s armorer quickly and efficiently riveting irons to the ankles of each man. “You need not go back down,” White continued. “You may stay on deck and take some air, if you feel up to it.”
“Yes, I would like that,” said Sam. “Thank you. Where are the other men from my ship?”
“Them? They enlisted, so they are not considered pressed men.”
Sam nodded calculating what a convenient policy that was to mask the true numbers of impressment, and turned his gaze aft to the unraised quarterdeck, where he saw Kington and a lieutenant quietly observing the armorer hammering the rivets of their shackles against a small anvil.
From this distance Sam and Kington made eye contact, with no sign of acknowledgment. Kington could readily admit that fitting chains to the pressed men was some inconvenience to them, but the sight of land, even such a hopelessly isolated island as Bermuda, might prove too great a temptation to impressed seamen to leap overboard and swim for it—despite the fact that there was no hiding in this tiny colony, separated from North America and safety by six hundred miles of open sea. Shackling them while in port decreased the incidence of desertions, and the subsequent odium of tracking the culprits down and hanging them.
As he waited his turn and then as the manacles were hammered about his ankles, Sam Bandy felt the ship enter a starboard turn, coming due east, and continuing until the sails were put over with the brief, confused snaps of the luffing canvas as she wore completely around, heading southwest. He could see land a half-mile off to port, and a half-mile to starboard the mole of the Royal Dockyard. He had never been here but had seen it a hundred times on the map as he shuttled up and down the coast in his trade and recognized Bermuda.
Kington leaned over to Evans. “You’ve been here before, you know the channel?”
“Well, come around easy to starboard, you may take us into the anchorage.” Kington strode a few paces forward and surveyed the length of the deck. He was fortunate, only a third of his crew had been pressed into service. Through the vastness of the Royal Navy the percentage was closer to half, and sometimes more.
“Mr. Evans,” he said at length.
“Anchor us convenient to that frigate. I am going below; keep an eye on the armorer, make sure all the risky ones are chained.”
The first officer made his respects. “Very good, sir.”
At the top of the ladder Kington peered across the harbor to the much taller H.M.S. Java, gazing long enough to count fourteen large gunports down her gun deck, and saw the irregular black stubble of large carronades about her fo’c’sle and quarterdeck. That, he thought, is more like it; he could not wait to transfer over.
It is all Bonaparte’s doing, he thought as he descended the ladder. For the English, the decade and more of war with the French had required a breathtaking inflation of the Navy, now more than nine hundred ships—nine hundred and one, he smirked briefly, with this fat American brig. What country on earth could deploy nine hundred vessels with all-volunteer crews? Impressment in the British Navy had been accepted for three centuries; now it was needed more than ever, and it was no time to question it. Of the one hundred forty thousand sailors presently in service, at least eight thousand made good an escape every year, but Kington was satisfied never to have lost one.
As he heard the Hound’s cable thunder from its tier and the anchor crash into the water, he opened a large red leather pouch and began assembling his papers—his commission, his orders, his personal correspondence.
Let no one doubt they were about the King’s business. Well—the King’s business after a fashion. The King himself was now famously imbecile, a raving, wigless waif wandering the corridors of Windsor Castle, or playing his organ, or holding imaginary conversations and, it was said, pissing purple water. The regency was now firmly in the hands of the Prince of Wales, who was a great friend of the Navy’s, or at least, when he was paying more attention to frills and laces and the cut of embroidered waistcoats, was under the influence of high and respectable men in the Admiralty.
The right half of Kington’s mouth again screwed up into something like a smile. Sardonic irony was not his only emotion, but it was his favorite, and the closest to unaffected amusement as he was capable. One day these American upstarts must realize what kind of game the English were running there in Bermuda, that they were not just taking the odd American sailor while capturing “deserters” to round out deficient crews. Rather, they were harvesting them from America’s growing merchant fleet, harvesting whole strings of them, like hops in August. Bermuda was their principal clearinghouse, from where they were distributed as needed to their undermanned men-o’-war.
When these Americans did realize how they were being used, great must be their rage, but greater still would be their impotence, for there is nothing they can do about it.
Lord Nelson himself, God rest his pickled soul, had endorsed the practice with all his heart. No admiral in the Navy had been so vocal in his disgust, his disdain for America and Americans. He respected those wonderfully designed heavy frigates of theirs well enough, and no doubt he would have approved the memorandum circulating within the Admiralty at this moment, a proposed instruction that British frigates not engage them with less than a two-to-one advantage. That was unduly alarmist, in Kington’s opinion. Their ships might be well built, but their seamanship had nothing to offer against centuries of British tradition. And these United States, these Americans and their concept of a country and their vision of themselves as a people—no officer more than Nelson would have more stoutly advocated reducing them back to their proper station as colonial tributaries of the Empire.
Kington wondered, if it were not for the satisfaction he had derived from this business, whether he should have remained in the Navy. The duke his father was not without friends in the Admiralty; perhaps he had something to do with rescuing his fortunes, all very well if he did. At least now he was resuscitated to the point of commanding a frigate. That was a good step.
There came two sharp raps at the cabin door. “Enter.”
It was first officer Evans. “All the pressed men are secure, sir.”
“Very well. Send a boat over to the frigate, alert them to pipe me aboard shortly.”
“Very good, m’lord.”
“Oh, and have that Canadian deserter, Lively, taken over as well. I think he is not who he says he is, but he is an experienced seaman and I can use him. Besides, he could raise a good deal of dust if we leave him here. I think we’ll just keep him where he can cause no difficulties.”
“Aye, m’lord, I will send him over with the boat and let them know the situation.”
“Very well, I shall be ready to transfer by the time they get back.”
The arrangements took only half an hour before Kington was in a boat, sitting with his back straight and his pouch upon his knees. As he approached the Java he could tell that she was but lightly constructed; she was French, a 5th rate, captured at Madagascar with considerable damage only the previous May. He knew she had been refitted at Portsmouth before coming out to meet a seasoned captain. Kington noted darkly that on her stern above his cabin windows he could make out the shadow of her previous name, the Renommée, lurking beneath the golden letters java.
Still, he was happy to have read in his briefing paper that she was only four years old, and he knew that her builders, Mathurin & Crucy of Nantes, turned out creditable vessels. Once they had tied up to the ladder, Kington looked up in surprise to see a bosun’s chair being lowered to him.
“If you please, sir.”
He had barely time to say “Oh” before he was being hoisted up and swung in.
“Welcome aboard, m’lord.” Kington beheld a plump lieutenant with dark hair and eyes making his respects. “Lieutenant Freemantle, sir, first officer.”
“Mr. Freemantle.” He returned the salute and extended his hand, which the first officer took, but not in an overly familiar way. “Did you think I could not manage the ladder?”
“We saw that you were carrying a large pouch of papers, sir. The chair seemed indicated.”
Kington inspected him. “Observation and initiative, eh? Very good. We’ll get on.”
“Will you inspect the ship, m’lord, or see your cabin first?”
“See the ship, yes, at once. I am pleased at what I see already.” He gestured up to the fo’c’sle and down the spar deck. “How many carronades?”
“Eighteen, sir. Thirty-two-pounders.”
“Excellent.” Ordinarily, commanding officers were given a choice of what guns to mount, but Java had come out to Bermuda as a completed package. Still, this was exactly the secondary battery he would have chosen, for he preferred close action behind the raking power of carronades over mounting lighter long guns topside. Kington ran his hand lightly down one of the stumpy barrels. “They look new. Are they just from the factory?”
“Yes, m’lord. Each one came on board with its full kit just before leaving Portsmouth.”
All knew what that meant. The Carron foundry in Scotland persuaded the Navy to contract for its carronades by delivering them as a complete firing system. Each gun came with twenty-five balls, fifteen double-headed shot, fifteen bar shot, ten charges of grape, and ten charges of canister. They delivered powder, too, in premixed woolen bags that eliminated the need for wadding. Carronades’ low muzzle velocity did not overheat the barrels, thus there was no need to worm the barrels before reloading, which made them the most rapidly firing large guns in the world.
“Excellent,” admired Kington, as he led the small clot of officers down the ladder to the gun deck. “How many crew?”
“Four hundred and two, m’lord.”
“How many were pressed?”
“A hundred and eighty, sir.”
“Mm.” Kington considered this for a moment. “Round up your worst dozen and send them ashore for other duty. I just took some deserters and new recruits from that American brig. Bring them over from the Hound. I think it is better to keep them at sea. But separate them into different watches.”
“I understand, m’lord,” said Freemantle. He knew that that order embraced not merely understanding what he was to do but understanding that leaving American crewmen ashore could complicate any repercussions of having taken them in the first place. Better to have them safely incommunicado.
“How are your provisions?”
“The stores are full, m’lord. We can sail at your order. We can lay in fresh perishables if there is time.”
On the gun deck, Kington paced with authority down the neatly tied-up rows of eighteen-pounders, buckets, garlands, and quoins neatly arranged, screws and swabs hung overhead, ropes coiled precisely. Kington had not felt so powerful in years; in such a ship he might take on anyone. In his mind he began calculating circumstances in which he might even gain an advantage over one of those vaunted American heavy frigates.
“There will be time. I want you to repaint the stern. I don’t feel right sailing with her old name showing through. Bad omen, you know. And go see Mr. Evans on the Hound, get those other Americans over here. Em—” He waved a hand vapidly. “The deserters, I should mean.”
Freemantle smiled. “Yes, m’lord. Right away.”
After being shackled, Sam was left to himself, observing the Hound and his captive Althea gliding to an anchorage distantly abeam a trim and apparently new frigate. Watching a boat shuttle men and officers to and from the frigate, he had felt himself unnoticed until a seaman and a Marine stood on either side of him and ordered him down into a boat with several other pressed men.
As Sam descended the ladder he noted that the chains on his feet were exactly the length needed between the steps down . . . Clever, he thought. Someone planned ahead.
Excerpted from "A Darker Sea"
Copyright © 2018 James L. Haley.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I want to read more from this author!
Good book. Great use of history and the telling of the story of the war of 1812 and Putnam. Hard to put down. Details of war and being on the ship were written so you felt like you were there. Interesting characters and secondary characters which includes entertaining back stories. Would recommend.