This first book in the series introduces Matty Graves, midshipman in the early years of the United States Navy. In 1799, the young U.S. Navy faces France in an undeclared Quasi-War for the Caribbean. Matty Graves is caught up in escalating violence as he serves aboard the Rattle-Snake under his drunken cousin, Billy. Matty already knows how to handle the sails and fight a ship. Now, with the sarcastic Lieutenant Peter Wickett as his mentor and nemesis, he faces the ironies of a war where telling friend from foe is no mean trick.
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A Matty Graves Novel
By Broos Campbell
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Broos Campbell
All rights reserved.
The day after Christmas was a fine day for a funeral, I thought, as I sniffed the chill breeze blowing out of Baltimore-Town. Although the breeze stank of rotted manure and the bitter smoke of a thousand chimneys, I gloried in the day. Snowflakes glittered in the iron-gray sky, and fat cold tears dripped from icicles in the Rattle-Snake's rigging. A fine day, a lovely day for a funeral, bleak and miserable for all but the most intimately concerned — and he was already bloating in his crypt in old Virginia.
Mr. Wickett dismissed the victualer's slaves at three bells in the forenoon watch. After that we cleared away the rubbish left from a week of stowing beef, biscuit and beans; powder and shot; canvas and cordage; water, whiskey and beer; pigs, goats, chickens and all the other needful things for a voyage of several months; and warped the schooner into the outer harbor. Now the Rattle-Snakes stood at divisions along the starboard side, toeing the deck seams and blowing on their hands as they waited for our captain, Lieutenant William Trimble — my cousin Billy — to appear.
I stood on the old-fashioned raised quarterdeck, gazing down at the men without actually seeing them. I'd learned few of their names yet. Most of them were so much furniture as far as I cared. What I cared about at that moment was the problem of hunching the collar of my greatcoat higher around my ears without attracting Wickett's notice. He'd rebuked me once already that morning for sneezing — said nothing, mind you, just stared, but our first lieutenant had a stare like a Gorgon. He towered beside me, all six-foot-something of him, aiming his pointed beak and gray eyes at this man and that, like an owl looking for rats. He missed nothing, did our Mr. Wickett.
He hauled out his watch and glanced at it. "My respects to the captain, Mr. Graves," he said to me, tucking his watch back into his vest pocket. "Tell him it's time."
"I am aware of what o'clock it is," said Cousin Billy, poking his head through the after hatch. He was frowzy and ruddy, having spent the morning drinking his breakfast. Unsteady weren't in it — even his eyes jiggled, like a pair of coddled eggs on a wet plate. He belched softly into his fist before hauling himself up the last few steps of the ladder.
The hand-blowing stopped at once; but though the men were selfconsciously glorious in their new pea jackets and pink-shaven faces, no foremast jack ever stands at attention. I found that Wickett and Sailing Master Rogers and I had arranged ourselves in a study of manly sorrow, as if maybe a portrait-painter lurked nearby. Corporal Haversham's Marines stood ramrod straight along the larboard rail, with their rifled muskets at the present, eyes front, with the flour turning to dough in their hair.
"Do off hats," said Wickett in the formal way, and everyone save the Marines stood bareheaded in the damp.
Bracing his hams against the binnacle, Cousin Billy reverently extracted a crisp document from his bosom and began to read. "December twenty-sixth, anno Domini seventeen hundred and ninety-nine," he said. "Long may this day be remembered." And there he had to stop to wipe his eye.
I looked the people over while we waited for him to collect himself. Sixty-two enlisted men, all of them clean and most of them sober — a good turnout, considering that nearly the entire lot had just come back from shore leave. The white hands had had a night and a day to attend church services, most of them opting for the Methodist meeting in Fell's Point, which was conveniently near any number of taverns and bawdy houses. Cousin Billy had even allowed the colored hands to go ashore, Baltimore being one of the few American ports where they could walk around unescorted.
I'd had a bit of a time myself, in celebration of my seventeenth birthday. It's awkward sharing a natal day with Jesus — the one tends to outglory the other — but as my mother and brother and sisters were dead, my father didn't like me, and my half-brother, Phillip, didn't believe in Christmas and other people's birthdays, I was long used to receiving presents only from myself. It suited me. I always knew what I was going to get, and it was always something I wanted. My gift that year had been a pleasant and charming redhead, about which I'll say no more, except that whoring ain't near as nasty as some people would have you suppose. I was content, anyway.
I became aware that I was smiling, and then I noticed that Wickett was staring at me as I smiled. And then I noticed that the port-wine stain in the middle of his forehead was contrasting in a strange way with the suddenly pale skin around it. He was all blotchy and mottled, like an angry octopus. Terrified that I might laugh, I hastily resumed my funeral face — the look of melancholic distraction that I had practiced in my bit of mirror below decks. The light northwesterly began to tickle my brows with snow, but with Wickett's eyes on me I dared not raise a hand to wipe it away. And my nose had begun to run. I sniffed furtively.
"The president," Cousin Billy was saying, "with deep affliction announces to the Navy and to the Marines the death of Our Beloved Fellow Citizen, commander of our armies and late President of the ..." His voice fell away into a sigh. I caught "illustrious by his eminent virtues and important services" and "grateful country delighted to confer" something or other, but little else.
Not that I was listening much. I had no love for Our Beloved Fellow Citizen.
The snow gave way to drizzle, and still Cousin Billy maundered. A particularly large and icy drop from the mainsail boom hit me on the back of the neck and dribbled down beneath my collar. Caught by surprise, I sneezed.
Wickett reached out and caught me just above the elbow, and dug his fingers into the nerve on the inner side of the bone. You should try it sometime. It hurts like the devil, even through an overcoat.
"Desirous that the Navy and Marines should express," mumbled Cousin Billy, "in common with something something American citizens, the high sense which all feel of the loss our country has sustained in the death of this good and great man —"
Here he broke off to mop his eyes. Some of the older seamen did likewise, and I took advantage of it to get my arm away from Wickett and wipe my nose on my coat sleeve.
And at last came the end of it. "The President," Billy said, "directs that the vessels of the Navy be put in mourning for one week by wearing their colors half-mast high, and that the officers of the Navy and of Marines wear crepe on the left arm below the elbow for six months."
He refolded the sheet and tucked it next to his heart. "Carry on, if you please, Mr. Wickett."
"Do on hats," said Wickett. "Ready at the braces and slings." There was a rumble of feet on the deck as the men on watch ran to their stations. "Haul away!"
When the hands had finished scandalizing the yards — hauling them out of square as a sign of mourning — Wickett glanced at his watch and then shouted to the knurled, white-bearded man who waited on the fo'c's'le: "Master Gunner Schmidt, it is nearly noon. You may begin the salute when the fort does." In a fierce undertone he said to me, "Damn your eyes, Mr. Graves, stand by at the colors."
It was just as well that he did, because I'd entirely forgotten my duty and would have stood around watching Mr. Schmidt if I'd been left to my own desires. But no one likes to have his eyes damned, especially when he deserves it, and I tucked the little piece of resentment away to be savored at another time.
A few minutes later a puff of smoke appeared above the new brick ramparts of Fort McHenry. Before the sound reached us across the water, Schmidt shouted, "Fire one!" and the man at Number One gun, the farthest forward on the starboard side, pulled his lanyard.
The Stars and Stripes flying above the fort began the descent. At the taffrail, I solemnly lowered Rattle-Snake's colors and raised them again halfway to the peak, savoring the smoke and thunder of the salute, and not least because Schmidt's German accent had caused his order to come out as "fire fun!"
I had seen salutes fired before, of course. We fired them every chance we got and demanded them in return, too, ever on the lookout for any impugnment of our honor. And our ships always required the utmost in ceremony from every port we entered, unless the captain had to pay for it himself. But the glorious waste of powder always thrilled me, and Washington's death rated a full twenty-one guns. Schmidt had to fire off all fourteen of our six-pounders and work halfway around again, until we were half-blinded and pretty near suffocated by the smoke. The Rattle-Snake and the tubby old Aztec were the only American men-of-war in port; but HM's thirty-two-gun frigate Clytemnestra lay near-to, and she and the more pretentious of the merchant ships joined in the din, rolling a continuous echo and re-echo of cannon fire around the harbor.
"Zalute gompleted, sir," called Schmidt when it was finished.
"Secure the guns." Wickett turned to Cousin Billy and raised his hat. "Salute completed, sir."
Cousin Billy lifted his hat in reply, his wisps of blond hair sticking to his shiny pink scalp. The hesitancy with which he returned the salute made him seem somehow pathetic, like a fat boy playing at soldiers.
"You may dismiss, Mr. Wickett," he said. "Then up spirits and give the hands their dinner, if you would be so kind. As for us, I've reserved a room at the Quid Nunc Club for after the procession." He looked sympathetically at his lieutenant, who was doing a fine job of containing his grief, it seemed to me, and said, "We will need a bracer by then, I'm sure.
"Cousin Matty — Mr. Graves," he said to me, "pass the word for my coxs'n, and see to it that my gig is hoisted out and all, there's a good fellow. And for heaven's sake, use your hankie; a very important personage is to meet us on the dock." He rubbed his hands together and smiled despite his recent tears. "He's our chance to be noticed, gentlemen. I think I need say no more than that."
* * *
A mean-mouthed man of maybe thirty, in square-rimmed gold spectacles and a fur-lined greatcoat, and with a hat that looked like a dead badger sitting on his head, stood waiting for us at the end of the Frederick Street wharf amid a pile of chests and valises and carryalls. Mr. P. Hoyden Blair, he yapped, was the assistant United States consul to San Domingo and not in the habit of waiting on anyone. "Not a one, neither kings nor dukes nor congressmen, and certainly not a pack of sailors. Port Republicain awaits. We sail at once."
A gun from the fort boomed in the gray distance, as it had done every fifteen minutes since the initial salute and would continue doing until midnight.
"Well, no. I am afraid we do not, sir," said Cousin Billy, looking embarrassed. "There's the procession, you know; mustn't miss it. And besides, we're still several officers short and not all the men are back yet, neither. I don't believe we can sail till morning."
"Morning! That ain't good enough, Mr. Trimble."
"Perhaps not even until tomorrow afternoon, sir," said Wickett. I could swear he hid a smile when he added, "And that is to assume the breeze stays in the north."
He didn't bother reminding Blair to say Captain Trimble, either. That, I thought, was interesting.
Blair peered at Wickett. "Mr. Trimble, who is this fellow?"
"His name is Wickett, sir, Lieutenant Peter Wickett. My first officer. He's been in the Rattle-Snake for longer than any of us. And this is John Rogers, our sailing master, and the short fellow is my cousin Matthew Graves, that I've rated master's mate."
I took off my hat to him, but he didn't spare me so much as a nod, which was just about exactly what I expected of him.
Rogers smiled as he held out a brawny hand and said, "The tide don't wait on us, Mr. Blair, but we must wait on it. Much as with yourself, sir."
"I know little enough of naval etiquette," said Blair, ignoring his hand, "but tell me this, Mr. Rogers: as a sailing master you are not on the ladder of promotion, ain't that so?"
"It is, sir, but I rank with a lieutenant all the same."
"Mr. Trimble," said Blair, "my impedimenta must be taken aboard at once."
"Yes, well, I suppose you can't just leave it sitting here on the dock," said Billy.
Rogers looked down at his hand as if surprised to see it still sticking out in front of him. He brushed back a long strand of dark hair that had come loose from his queue, as if that's what he'd meant to do all along, and said: "I'll see to the gent's baggage, Cap'n, and send the lads back again after."
The lads gave him dirty looks behind his back. No doubt they'd been looking forward to sneaking a few last hours of pinching wenches' bottoms and drinking flip beside a fire till Cousin Billy chose to go back aboard, and now they'd have to row around in the weather instead, slinging bags and boxes about and getting soaked through in the bargain.
But a sailor's life was full of hardship, and it was the sailing master's job to see to the stowing of cargo anyway. It was their bad luck and none of my own.
"There, you see, sir?" said Billy to Blair, when Rogers had gotten the boat's crew busy on the chests and valises and carryalls. "He'll have it all stowed away shipshape and Bristol fashion when we bring you aboard. And you will have my sleeping place in the great cabin. You will be my guest, sir. But we must away now to Baltimore Street for the procession, and after that we'll need something to take off the chill. I'm standing drinks at a little place I know."
"Indeed, indeed!" said Blair, brightening at last. "Was about to suggest it myself."
Baltimore-Town had been drearied up something awful, which was good of someone, I suppose. Black bunting festooned the three-story brick warehouses facing the waterfront, and more of it dangled from the lampposts and horse troughs along South Street. Church bells competed with the quarter-hour gun to see which could be the mournful-est. The shops were closed and the business district was near deserted, although light from a few imperfectly shuttered upper windows sparkled in the running gutters: commerce, like the tide and Mr. P. Hoyden Blair, waits for no man, especially not a dead one. The citizens we passed were wrapped in mourning weeds. We ourselves wore black breeches and stockings in honor of the day, with boat cloaks thrown over the blue and buff of our best uniform coats.
There was a great surge of people all bound for Baltimore Street, and in the press I contrived to get my heel stepped on. I stopped short, hopping on one foot and trying to keep from being pushed along by the crowd.
"Go on, gentlemen," I cried to Billy's back. "Go on without me, do!"
Wickett turned around to look at me. "What the devil are you on about?"
"I went and lost my shoe, sir."
"Well then, pick it up again. Don't you want to be in the parade? Look, the hawkers and pickpockets are already at work." And with that he disappeared into the crowd.
And a parade is what it was. Grief was on parade, and I resented it because I couldn't share in it. I kept thinking of the last time I'd seen my brother Geordie, and how Washington had let that bastard Hamilton bring down the weight of an army onto the heads of a few dozen men and boys. Washington should have prevented it. But an army was like a gun, I guessed: if you have one, sooner or later you just have to use it.
However, there was something of a holiday in the air, and as I considered the reason for the event, I couldn't be entirely uncheerful. The hawkers were shoving through the crowd with their barrels of beer mounted on barrows, and handcarts piled high with oysters; and a great many of the people were drunk. I spied a wall that was sheltered from the drizzle by an overhanging eave, and after shoving off a few smaller boys I sat me down. I bought a meat pie and a pot of beer, and after a while I could hear the parade shrieking and squawking down the street.
Excerpted from No Quarter by Broos Campbell. Copyright © 2006 Broos Campbell. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked up No Quarter in a used book store on a whim, never having heard of Broos Campbell before. My family was out of town, so I sat down to pizza at a local place. I found myself laughing out loud before my drink arrived, enthralled with the navy action before the food came, and actually caring what happened to Matty by the time I paid the tab. Campbell adds just enough sailor jargon to make it real without forcing me to get a lubber's dictionary just to know what he's saying. I have long enjoyed old navy fiction this just takes off in a fun new direction with the wit of Twain, the story-craft of Bernard Cornwell, and just the right amount of O'Brian nautical-speak to remind us how those 'Age-of-Sail' men really lived. Looking forward to his next one.
Historically accurate and holds ones interest.
A really powerful ending.
Not bad, Maybe I will try another volume.