Under the command of Captain Charles Hayden, Royal Navy frigate HMS Themis is sent to counter the threat of the French forces in the West Indies. In the middle of the vast Atlantic, Hayden discovers two Spanish noblemen, castaway in a ship’s boat—a stroke of almost impossible good fortune. The Spaniards’ explanation for their plight seems so improbable that Hayden’s officers suspect them of being criminals or even spies. But they have secrets far more shocking than that—secrets which will haunt Hayden in his new posting.
Upon reaching the Barbados station, Hayden finds himself under the command of the vainglorious Sir William Jones, an impetuous and foolhardy officer. Refusing orders will cost Hayden his command. But accepting them might cost him his ship, his crew…and his life.
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Lady Hattingale, accompanied by the physician, descended the great stair a few steps at a time, paused, her head inclined and nodding at the doctor’s words, and then undertook the next three steps. The butler awaited them at the bottom, a near-statue of discretion and deferment. When the physician and the noblewoman came near he whispered a few words and both physician and lady turned their attention to Charles Hayden, who waited ten paces distant.
“Captain Hayden,” she said, crossing towards him.
Hayden made a leg. “Lady Hattingale.”
“Dr Goodwin, our physician.”
“You have come to enquire of Lord Arthur,” she said—it was not a question.
“And to speak with him if it is possible.”
Lady Hattingale glanced at the physician, who seemed to consider this request most seriously.
“I do not think it would do any great harm,” the doctor decreed. “Ten minutes, though, no more. Do not speak on any subject that might cause him distress.”
“Is he yet so fragile?” Hayden asked.
“He lost a great deal of blood. I am still somewhat surprised that he survived. But the young are full of surprises.”
“And his arm?”
“We will see. I think he will keep it, but he may never have full use of it again.”
“Thank you, Dr Goodwin,” Hayden said, “for all you have done.”
The man made a modest nod. “Who is your surgeon?”
“Carry him my compliments. I do not think Lord Arthur would have survived without his timely ministrations.”
“I will very gladly do so,” Hayden replied.
Lady Hattingale saw the doctor to the door and the butler took Hayden up to Lord Arthur. He was let into a large, sun-flooded room, where he found Wickham buried under a sea of white coverlets. The midshipman’s face beamed like a lighthouse upon seeing his shipmate.
“Captain Hayden, sir . . .”
“This is a cosy little cabin they have given you, Wickham. You must be an admiral now to have such a cot.” Hayden sat down upon a bedside chair. “You are pale as a cloud. I have seen fish bellies not half so white as you.”
“I am told I left half my allotment of blood upon the deck of our ship, sir.”
“Someone is always cleaning up after you reefers.”
“Did you speak to Dr Goodwin, sir? Did he say when I might be allowed on my feet again?”
“He did not. All he said was that you are recovering apace and that you should be playing the fiddle again in a fortnight.”
“My mother will be most happy to hear it. I was a terrible disappointment as a musical prodigy.”
“Well, there, you see, one advantage already—a happy mother.”
Both fell silent a moment.
“Did we lose many men, sir?”
“We took losses, yes. But all our Themises came through unharmed, you excepted. Did I never tell you not to stand in the way of a musket ball?”
“You did, sir, but I forgot myself in all the excitement.”
“That is why you should listen to your elders, for I am four and twenty and you are but six and ten.”
Again a silence settled around them.
“I am told there is to be a medal, sir?”
“That is the rumour. All the captains Lord Howe saw fit to mention in his missives to the Admiralty are to receive a medal for their part in the battle on June first.”
“You must have been mentioned, sir.”
“By some miracle, I was. I did not think the admiral knew my name. He did not, however, mention a number of captains who I am certain shall feel they have been slighted. I expect there will be a great deal of resultant ill will.”
Wickham nodded, as there was nothing new in this; admirals always had their favourites. “Have you any news, sir? Are we given orders?”
“I have been given orders. You are to rest and recover.”
Wickham nodded and glanced away, blinking.
“Where is Raisonnable bound, if a mere landsman may ask?”
“You are no landsman, Wickham, but only temporarily aground. The spring tide will float you off. I am the captain of Raisonnable no more, but have been given a new ship. One you are more than a little familiar with. Themis is her name—a fine frigate with a black character.”
“Indeed, and we are sent on convoy duty into the Baltic, with most of your old shipmates aboard.”
“Why, sir, whenaway? Mayhap I will be recovered enough to take ship with you.”
“We sail within the week, but I expect you to buckle down and recover so you will be ship shape when we return. Mr Stephens has informed me that it is likely we will be sent to the West Indies after the hurricane season has passed.”
“Not before December, I should think. That gives you some goodly amount of time to complete your refit and resume your station aboard.”
“I shall set the dockyard hands to work on my ailing limb immediately, sir.”
“I am happy to hear it. The midshipmen’s berth has become a nursery, full of children who do not know which end is which—and I am talking about their person, not the ship. I need you back to instruct these boys in the finer points of being an officer in His Majesty’s Navy.”
Wickham grinned. “I remember, sir, when I first set foot aboard in my new rig with gleaming buttons and snow-white breeches.”
“Yes, I remember my first days as well. I could hardly comprehend a thing that went on around me.”
“I was the same, sir. And then a new, young lieutenant came aboard and taught us all what service meant.”
“You know those new lieutenants, all brash and thinking they know all.”
“I hope to be one myself, some day.”
“You were an excellent acting lieutenant, Wickham, and not in the least brash or all-knowing. Why, I should recommend you to any theatre company, you were so convincing.”
This almost put a hint of colour into the midshipman’s face, and he appeared to search for something to say.
“I have been reading the papers,” Wickham offered, “one-handed.” He tried to smile. “Do you think that Robespierre can survive the summer?”
“I do not know,” Hayden said, feeling his spirits sink. He had had no news of his family in France for many months. “The Committee is sending anyone to the guillotine, almost without trial—a mere accusation is enough to take a man’s head. It is a frightening time to be French. There must be a backlash against this—there must be a return to reason.”
The door opened then and Lady Hattingale entered. Immediately, Hayden rose to his feet.
“Please sit, Captain Hayden,” she said. “I am but a nursing sister here.”
“Your ministrations have worked a small miracle,” Hayden observed. “This midshipman appears well on his way to a full recovery.”
“He is doing splendidly, but forcing him to rest is my greatest contribution . . . which he resists at all times. Perhaps, Captain, you might order him to stay abed until the doctor allows him to quit it?”
“Mr Wickham, I hereby order you to rest until this good nurse and the physician allow you to rise. In fact, you are to follow their instructions in every detail. Do you comprehend what I am saying?”
Wickham nodded submissively. “Aye, sir. I shall do all within my power to be a better invalid . . . but it is not in my nature.”
“No,” Hayden responded, “it is not, but you will be back aboard ship the sooner for a little patience, I am certain.”
“Is it three o’clock already?” Lady Hattingale enquired as the mantel clock chimed. “You see, Lord Arthur, how quickly time speeds? You shall be on your feet in no time at all.”
Hayden took the hint and rose.
“I must bid you adieu, Lady Hattingale, and thank you again for all you have done for Lord Arthur. We all believe he will be an admiral one day, if he does not want to be Prime Minister.”
“He will make a better admiral, I think,” she answered, and rose as well. “Let me walk you out, Captain.” Then, to Wickham: “You have your orders, Lord Arthur. Rest. I shall find you another book to read.”
Hayden gave a nod to Wickham, who touched an invisible hat with his good hand.
“Thank you for coming, sir. Remember me to the others.”
“I do not think they have forgotten; they ask about you hourly. We will be back from our convoy in a few weeks and I will look in on you at that time. Be well.”
Wickham gave a nod, appearing suddenly unable to speak.
Hayden and Lady Hattingale went into the hallway beyond, and towards the stair. She was a very tall woman of perhaps fifty years, though she carried these lightly. She was elegantly but simply dressed and wore no jewellery—not even a ring. To Hayden she seemed a practical and steady woman—just the sort he would choose to nurse his unlucky midshipman.
“He appears thin as a whip,” Hayden observed.
“Yes, he very nearly did not survive,” Lady Hattingale replied, shaking her head but a little. “I thank God that he is on the mend and hope he does not take a sudden turn. Lord and Lady Sanstable will arrive presently.”
“I expected them here.”
“They were visiting in the north but I am certain set out the very instant they had word.”
“I am sorry not to have met them. Lord Sanstable has been a good friend to both me and my ship.”
“And well he should be,” she said, and smiled. “Lord Arthur worships the ground you walk upon—or perhaps I should say ‘deck.’”
“I cannot imagine that is true.”
“Lord Sanstable is convinced you have been a great and good influence upon his son.”
“I wonder if His Lordship will feel the same after he has seen his son so gravely hurt?”
“You could protect him only at the cost of his honour,” Lady Hattingale very wisely observed. “Lord Sanstable comprehends this.”
The final stair was reached and in a moment they arrived at the great entrance.
Hayden paused. “Thank you again, Lady Hattingale, for all you have done for Lord Arthur.”
“I have known him since the day his mother brought him into this world, Captain Hayden. I could not have done less and wish I might do more.”
Hayden was out the door, where a groom stood waiting with his hired horse. Portsmouth was but a short ride, and all the way there Hayden found himself overcome with the most morbid feelings and such tides of emotion that he could hardly keep his saddle. All of the midshipmen were his charges, given into his safekeeping by apprehensive parents. But the truth was he could not keep them safe. He could try to make them good sea officers, but they would ever face mortal danger. Wickham, he realised, had become something of a protégé—more like a nephew than a young gentleman. Of course, it flattered Hayden to think of himself somehow part of such a distinguished family—for he was of more modest stock. But musket balls did not care what colour blood they spilled—blue or red, it was all the same to them. That was the harsh truth of the sea officer’s life. Anyone who stood upon a quarterdeck was a target for enemy fire. Hayden, Archer, Wickham—they could all easily end their lives sewn up in a hammock, slipped over the side into a dark, watery grave . . . there to wait until the sea shall give up her dead.
It began as an uneventful crossing—if crossing a vast and volatile ocean in the dead of winter could ever be construed as uneventful. A three-day gale in mid-December, however, changed all that and set in chain a series of “events” unlike any Hayden had ever known or even imagined.
To begin, three men were thrown down from aloft; two broke on the deck and departed this life upon that instant, but the third, beyond all odds, landed upon one of his fellows, who had not heard the cries, and now it appeared to be a question of which would live, for both lay in the sick-berth sorely hurt.
The next event was less dramatic but infinitely more sensitive. Hayden had been prevailed upon by Admiral Caldwell, the commander-in-chief of the Barbados station, to carry the admiral’s secretary out with him. The man, who was also a cousin to the admiral’s wife, was presently installed in a cabin in the Themis’ gunroom. And it was in regard to this particular gentleman that Lieutenant Benjamin Archer had approached his captain.
Beyond the gallery windows, night’s sullen tide gathered on the eastern horizon. Across the sky, however, quickly fading shades of pale purple, rose, and gold appeared to have been pastelled upon the clouds. Shortly, a servant would slip in to light the lamps. The frigate’s cabin, which had once seemed as grand as a ballroom to Hayden, now appeared cramped and dreary compared to the great cabin he had so recently vacated upon the sixty-four-gun ship Raisonnable. He had been too junior a captain to retain such a command and now he was back on the ship no other officer wanted, his rise and fall so rapid he had barely a moment to register either. At least, he reminded himself, he had retained his post. And he was not headed north into the Baltic on convoy duty, where he had so recently spent several cold, wet months, often fog bound and land-blind. Instead, he shaped his ship’s course towards the West Indies, and the warmth of those verdant islands had reached out to the crew of the Themis the previous week.
Archer stood in his usual post-somnolent state, uniform not quite dishevelled enough to provoke comment. In his hand he held a small square of cream-coloured paper, neatly folded. The young lieutenant was struggling to find some way to begin and looked sheepish or, perhaps, embarrassed, Hayden could not say which.
“And what is it, exactly, that Mr Percival has done to distress you so, Mr Archer?”
“Well, sir . . . he has given a poem to Mr Maxwell.”
Midshipman Maxwell had been dubbed “the cherub” the instant he had set foot on the deck, for no one aboard had ever seen a youngster who so resembled a seraph, from his curly, yellow locks and rosy cheeks to his rather angelic smile.
“That hardly seems a capital offence—unless it is a particularly bad poem.”
“It is rather good, sir, but then his claim to have written it is somewhat exaggerated, as I believe a player by the name of Shakespeare wrote a very similar poem some years past.” He held the poem out to the somewhat mystified Hayden.
Hayden unfolded the paper, and there, in a very beautiful hand, was written:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st.
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
“So Mr Percival gave this poem to Mr Maxwell, claiming it to be of his own making . . . to impress our young midshipman with his poetic skills?”
Archer shifted uncomfortably and then said in a very low voice, “I believe it was to impress him with his ardour, sir.”
“Ahh . . .” Hayden felt suddenly as though he had been thrown into a part of the ocean he had not swum before. “And how is it you are certain of that?”
“It is a love poem written by Shakespeare to a young man, sir.”
Hayden glanced at the poem. “I see no indication here that this poem was written to a man rather than a woman.”
“I believe it was dedicated to and first presented to the Earl of Southampton.”
“By Shakespeare . . .”
“Shakespeare the playwright.”
“The very one, Captain.”
“I am . . . somewhat . . . dumbfounded.” Hayden looked at Archer again. “Our Shakespeare?”
“The things they neglected to teach me in school . . .”
“I can say the same, Captain.”
“How did you learn of this, then?”
“My brother, sir.”
“The very one, sir. He belongs to a Shakespeare society.”
“I did not know such a thing existed.”
“It would appear there is at least one.”
Hayden glanced at the scrap of paper again. “He is quite certain this sonnet was written to a young man?”
“Quite, sir. It is but one of many, a fact apparently well known among scholars, sir.”
“Well, they have kept it rather a secret from the rest of us.” Hayden glanced again at the poem he still held. “I shall never view Shakespeare’s plays in the same way again.”
“It does give them a certain slant, sir.”
“Yes. But to the matter at hand . . . How has Maxwell taken all of this?”
“He came to me rather embarrassed, sir. In fact, I should say he felt somewhat ashamed. He asked my advice on how best to proceed, not wishing to offend a cousin of the admiral’s wife.”
“Hmm. Does anyone else know of this?”
“Mr Wickham, sir; he sent Maxwell to me.”
“Let us try to keep it among the four of us.”
“I agree, sir, but I am not quite certain how to deal with it. I suppose I could give Mr Percival a copy of the Articles of War . . . ?”
“But he is a civilian and only governed by them at the extreme. When does the midshipmen’s reading society next meet?”
“Do you still attend?”
“Whenever duty allows, Captain. I intend to be at the next meeting.”
Hayden passed the poem back to Archer. “Excellent. Invite Mr Percival to your meeting, then produce this poem, saying that he has brought it to the attention of the group, read it aloud, and discuss it. Be certain to inform everyone who Mr Shakespeare wrote it for. Mr Maxwell will have no more troubles with Mr Percival after that, I trust.”
Archer looked immensely relieved. “Thank you, sir. I believe that is an excellent plan.”
Hayden hoped he was right. Best to save everyone embarrassment in this matter—not least the captain. “How is Mr Wickham getting on?” Hayden asked, as much to change the subject as anything.
“I do not believe he has gained any more use of his hand since he came back aboard, sir. He remains one-and-a-half-handed, though I believe he is determined to make the best of it, all the same.”
“He would not let anyone know any different, no matter how he felt.”
“I believe that is true, sir.”
“Do keep your eye on him, Mr Archer, and inform me immediately if you see signs of melancholy. The young . . . they never imagine that they will not heal, but when they discover they have injuries that will stay with them all their days . . . Well, I have seen more than one youth struggle with this realisation.”
“I will observe him most carefully, sir. You may rely on me entirely.”
“I already do, Mr Archer. Is there anything else?”
“The small cutter has a touch of rot in the transom, sir. Mr Hale is seeing to it.”
“Are you happy with your new carpenter?”
“I am, sir. I shall miss Mr Chettle, but the new carpenter seems a good sort, if you can overlook his bawdy humour.”
“I have overlooked greater things.” Hayden nodded to his first lieutenant. “Mr Archer.”
“Captain.” Archer touched his hat and let himself out, allowing Hayden to return to his accounts.
“Shakespeare,” he muttered. “Who would have thought it?”
Over the sounds of sea and breeze Hayden heard a cry and turned away from his paperwork. By the time he had risen to his feet and pulled on a coat, there was a knock on his door. He opened it to find his marine guard and one of the younger hands standing just beyond—the sailor out of breath.
“The lookouts have spotted a boat, sir,” the boy said, making a knuckle. “Mr Ransome has sent me, sir, requesting your presence on deck.”
“You do mean a boat, Jackson, not a ship?”
“Most definitely a ship’s boat, sir. Appears to be only a handful in it, Captain.”
By the time Hayden emerged into the damp evening, dusk had darkened the sea and only a dim glow remained in the west, the sunset retreating rapidly.
“Where away, Mr Ransome?”
The lieutenant pointed.
It took Hayden a moment to find it, but there, upon the breathing back of the sea, a ship’s boat rose and then dropped out of sight.
“Heave-to, Mr Ransome, if you please. We will take them aboard.”
Hayden put his hands on the rail cap. Wickham appeared at his side with a glass, which he fixed on the boat, distant perhaps a hundred yards. Most would hardly take notice, but the midshipman had an awkward grip with one hand—the result of the injury sustained on 1 June. He hid it well, but his friends took secret notice.
“How many, Mr Wickham?”
“I can make out only two, sir.” Wickham peered into the tube a moment more. “It would almost appear to be a Navy boat, Captain, but the men are not in uniform.”
“Well, we shall soon know their story.”
The occupants of the boat quickly revealed that the lack of uniform was not an accident. Although one shipped oars, he had only the vaguest idea of how they should be employed. He did manage, after a time, to lumber, stem first, into the Themis, causing every seaman aboard to wince noticeably. The castaways required aid to board and then collapsed on the deck, both of them an almost unhuman colour and clearly horribly ill.
“Hoist in the boat, Mr Ransome,” Hayden ordered, and then turned his attention to the castaways.
“You are English,” one managed, slumped down against the hammock netting. “Thank God,” he said with feeling. “We feared you were French.”
“Only in the smallest degree,” Hayden replied, and then in Spanish, for that was, by their accent, clearly their mother tongue: “How long have you been adrift?”
Hayden half expected, by the looks on their faces, that they might not answer and instead begin to weep, but the same young man spoke.
“One day only,” he replied in English, “but we were made terribly ill by the storm and have had almost no water or food. I am Don Miguel Campillo, Captain.” He put a hand on the shoulder of his companion. “My brother, Don Angel. We prayed and the Lord sent you. You are the hand of God, sir.”
“I have been called many things, but that is by far the kindest. Charles Hayden, Captain of His Majesty’s Ship Themis.” He turned to one of the hands. “Water . . . and pass the word for the doctor, if you please.”
A moment later the castaways were draining the dipper and then draining it again. Hayden thought the younger, Angel, might begin to sob and was controlling this up-welling of feeling with difficulty.
“Will you come down to my cabin?” Hayden asked when they had drunk their fill. “I have called for the doctor.”
Miguel struggled to his feet and balanced himself against the hammock netting. “Thank you, Captain.” His voice was noticeably less hoarse. “We have no need of a doctor. We are just ill from the sea. It will pass. You will excuse our show of feeling, I hope, but we feared we would never be found and would perish on this great desert of water. God has delivered us; He must have some purpose for us yet.”
“At the very least, I think you should speak with the doctor. May I help you?” Hayden enquired of Angel, who remained slumped on the deck.
“We can manage, Captain, thank you.” With some difficulty, Miguel pulled his brother to his feet and they set off along the gangway, brother supporting brother and hammock netting supporting both.
Hayden thought them to be perhaps twenty years and sixteen or seventeen. They were not Spanish peasants, as the elder made very clear by his use of “Don.” Their dress was plain, but Miguel’s manner, though polite, showed not the least deference. His English was polished. The two were obviously related, though the older had progressed further into manhood and his face and form showed it. Dark, well made, not overly tall, serious, perhaps even wary, but then they were among strangers and had just felt the cold presence of Death lurking among the high-running seas.
The ladder was negotiated with difficulty, and on the gun-deck they found Dr Griffiths waiting outside the door to Hayden’s cabin, a grey presence a bit more undertaker-like than Hayden believed was ideal in a surgeon. Inviting everyone to enter, Hayden introduced the doctor and then excused himself. When he emerged onto the darkened deck, the oceanic night had settled upon a restive sea.
Ransome spotted Hayden and came over, touching his hat. “Did you learn how they came to be adrift, sir?”
“Not yet. I thought it best Dr Griffiths see them before I made such an enquiry. I suppose it might also be polite to offer them sustenance before subjecting them to the Inquisition.”
“Well, at least they should be familiar with inquisitions and know how to conduct themselves.” Ransome looked out over the sea. “I do not know if God preserved them, but half an hour later I doubt the lookouts would have made them out in the dark—they would have been left adrift.”
“I agree. They are fortunate beyond anything one might have a right to expect.”
“Such is the fickle lady, sir,” Ransome observed.
“Lady Luck, you mean?”
“Yes, sir. It is best to leave as little as possible to chance, I have come to think.”
“Really, Mr Ransome? You have chosen a damned odd profession for anyone wishing to leave little to chance.” Not to mention, and Hayden didn’t, that Ransome had a reputation as something of a gamester.
Ransome laughed. “I chose it before I grew philosophical, sir.”
“Did not we all . . .”
Ransome nodded towards the companionway. “The doctor, sir.”
“If you will excuse us, Mr Ransome?”
Hayden motioned for the doctor to accompany him back to the taffrail, where they might find some privacy. Here the wake of the speeding ship stretched astern, pale, jagged, apparently endless.
“I do hope it is seasickness and not some pestilence?” Hayden began.
“I believe it is nothing more, though neither gentleman would allow me to examine him more closely. They assured me there was no illness aboard their ship other than the common varieties.”
“Did they tell you how they came to be adrift in the middle of a rather large ocean?”
“They did not volunteer any information, Captain, and I felt I should leave all such enquiries to you.” Griffiths looked at Hayden. “What shall we do with them?”
“Carry them to Barbados. I suppose I shall have to hang cots for them in my cabin, though it will be a bloody nuisance.”
“Is there not some other arrangement could be made?”
“The midshipmen’s berth, I suppose, but my impression is that they are rather above such rough and tumble.”
“Yes, I quite agree.”
“I will go down and have an explanation with them. Should I offer them any specific foods, Doctor?”
“Nothing salted—I fear they drank a little seawater.”
“Nothing salted?” Hayden replied, incredulous. “Are we not on a ship at sea? Salt is the major portion of our diet.”
“Well, do the best you can,” the doctor called after him.
Miguel Campillo rose from his seat when Hayden entered, and then Angel took note and followed suit.
“Please, sit,” Hayden said, “by all means. How fare you now?”
Neither looked in the least recovered from their ordeal, and they slumped back down on the bench that ran beneath the gallery windows, side by side, elbows on knees. Before each stood a bucket, no doubt called for by the doctor.
“Excuse us, Captain Hayden,” Miguel said hoarsely. “It was the motion of the small boat. We were forced to bail for our lives during the height of the storm, and that exhausted our reserves.”
Angel looked up at Hayden and whispered, “If I could but lie down . . . ?”
“I have ordered cots for you both. They should be carried up immediately. I hope you do not mind sharing my cabin? There really is no other place at the moment.”
Angel glanced at his brother, who nodded. “Thank you, Captain. Wherever you choose to quarter us . . .”
A quiet knock on the door and Hayden called for it to be opened. The marine sentry’s face appeared. “Your cots, sir,” he said.
“Bring them in, if you please,” Hayden ordered.
There were eye-bolts in the beams in various places throughout the cabin where cots had been slung at different times and in different weathers, or simply away from occasional leaks in the deck-head.
“I shall let you rest and recover,” Hayden told them, “but first, I must know if we should be searching for other survivors. Can you tell me quickly from what ship you were cast adrift and what happened?”
Miguel shook his head sadly. “I doubt very much there are others, Captain. We sailed from Cádiz aboard a Spanish frigate, the Medea. The captain was a friend of my late father’s. He carried us to Vera Cruz, to our uncle. Last night, our ship was running under reduced sail. In that state it was struck by another ship, staving in her stern. The two ships clung together for an instant and then were wrenched apart by the seas. There was no saving the ship; it began to sink immediately. The captain put us, with a sailor, in the first boat to be launched. Others were then to climb down and join us, but the boat was torn free of the ship and the sailor cast into the sea. We could not save him, nor had we strength enough to row back to the ship. I do not know if other boats were launched. I pray Captain Andreu survived, for he was dear to us.”
Hayden nodded. “You were driven then by the waves and wind without recourse to sail or oar?”
“That is correct.”
“And at what time did the collision take place?”
“After the supper hour. We had gone forward for the evening prayer or would have been in the captain’s cabin and certainly swept out to sea.”
“I will heave-to until morning and make a search at dawn.”
“We will pray for the others, Captain.”
“Rest. Use the leeward quarter-gallery.” Hayden pointed to be sure there would be no misunderstanding. “My servant will slip in later to hang my cot, and I will come to sleep not so long after.”
Hayden bid them good night and returned to the deck.
Ransome was still officer of the watch, and Hayden sent for him immediately. Mr Barthe, the sailing master, appeared at Ransome’s side at the same instant.
“We will remain hove-to and attempt to hold station as best we can until dawn. It appears, Mr Barthe,” Hayden said, “that they escaped a Spanish frigate sunk by collision. Their boat was torn free of the ship with only one other aboard, and he was lost over the side at the same instant. Come daylight, we will make what search we can.” Hayden turned his attention to the sailing master. “If their boat was blown dead downwind from sometime around ten last night, where do you think the ship would have sunk?”
Barthe pressed his lips into a sour line. “Difficult to say, Captain. We have had strong winds and have been making twenty miles of current a day. If I might consult my charts and ponder it a moment, sir?” He looked up at his captain, round face barely visible in the dark. “What of the other ship?”
“I do not know. It would appear she stove in the transom of the frigate and then the two ships were torn apart.”
“At the very least, she would have lost her bowsprit, and perhaps her foremast as well. Even if her hull remained undamaged, it might have been some time before she could sort that out.” Barthe touched his brow as though in sudden pain. “A stove-in transom . . . She would not swim long, sir. Perhaps only minutes.”
“I agree. We all saw how long the Syren floated when not nearly so grievously wounded,” Hayden reminded them, referring to a ship sunk by collision on convoy duty not a year past.
“Perhaps we shall find the other ship, sir, and have an explanation,” Ransome suggested. “We might hope they saved the crew, Captain.”
“If they did not founder as well. Alert the lookouts, Mr Ransome. I doubt they will see anything on this dark a night, but we must do all we can.”
Hayden stood with the sailing master a moment more.
“Peculiar, is it not, Captain,” Barthe said, lowering his voice, “to find a boat from a sinking ship with only two aboard?”
“I agree, but more peculiar things have occurred, as we both know.”
Barthe nodded, then touched his hat. “That is true, sir, but this . . . Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing before. If you have no more need of me, Captain . . . ?”
“We are hove-to in the middle of a deep ocean, Mr Barthe; I believe Mr Dryden can keep us safe until daylight. Good night, Mr Barthe.”
“Good night, sir.” Mr Barthe waddled off into the night.
Hayden stood looking out over the sea, which still rolled heavily from the recent gale, though the wind had taken off considerably. Tattered cloud flew ever swiftly by, but high above, the stars spread densely across the heavens. He expected a clear day next, with fickle winds. It would make his search difficult, but there might be seamen out there yet, clinging to flotsam if not in boats.
A throat cleared behind, and Hayden turned to find the surgeon’s mate standing a few paces off.
“Somehow, Mr Ariss, I doubt you come bearing good news.”
“Dr Griffiths sent me to tell you that MacDonald has departed this life, sir.”
“The unfortunate whom the top-man fell upon?” There were new men in the crew, and Hayden did not yet know all their names.
“That is correct, sir.”
“God rest his soul. His luck was as bad as the two Spaniards’ was good.”
“So it would seem, sir. Luck can be like that.”
“Indeed it can. Thank you, Mr Ariss.”
“Good night, sir.”
This news left Hayden very low; he was not sure why. Perhaps it was the entirely arbitrary nature of ill luck; the idea that it could fall upon one in forms never conceived of and against which it was impossible to defend oneself. As though being struck by lightning became suddenly common.
In this foul temper, Hayden retreated to his cabin. The carpenter or his mates had fitted a canvas panel fore and aft to provide some privacy to both Hayden and his unlooked-for guests. By a dim light Hayden made his nightly toilet and, creeping about to make as little noise as possible, rolled expertly into his swaying cot, where sleep would not come no matter how he attempted to entice it. He closed his eyes and listened to the common sounds of a ship at sea: creaking cordage and the sound of men moving about the deck. Hove-to as they were, the motion was very comfortable—an almost gentle lifting and falling. Through the screen he could hear the Spanish brothers breathing softly and he could not think of them as anything but intruders stealing away the little privacy he had.
Spain, Hayden knew, was being hard-pressed by French armies in the Pyrenees and, after its initial successes, was beginning take losses. The British government feared that Spain’s resolve would weaken if further losses were incurred. The question then would be, would Spain turn against her former allies, or try to remain neutral? Hayden’s own belief was that, if sufficiently threatened by France, Spain would rather fight a distant island nation than a great power with her even greater armies. The brothers asleep beyond the screen might be enemies and he would not even know.
The world was in tumult. Robespierre had fallen in July, but the chaos in France continued. The war had been carried to almost all the oceans of the world, and the West Indies, towards which he sailed, was no exception. The valuable sugar islands were being traded back and forth, and on some, the slaves were in revolt. The guillotine had crossed the Atlantic, carried by fanatical Jacobins bent on purifying their revolution. It was a time of fear and constant change—unsettling to everyone, as the outcome was as yet uncertain.
As almost every night of his life since he had gone to sea, Hayden woke several times. Commonly, he stirred to listen and sense the motion of the ship—to be certain all was well—but this night, each time he woke it was from a dream of a woman coming to his cot. In the darkness he could not make out her face but only a wave of hair tumbling about her shoulders, her graceful movement, the pale silk of a nightgown, perhaps, and the sweet scent of her skin. Each time he awoke with such longing that it was almost a physical pain—a fever.
Soft whispering in a strange tongue. Hayden came fully awake . . . and then he realised the sound came from beyond the newly erected panel. Spanish.
Hayden spoke Spanish well enough—not so well as Italian or French—and he comprehended a good deal more, but this whispering was too low for him to catch more than a few words.
The Spanish were allies, of course, and these brothers were likely nothing more than the castaways they claimed, but there was something—as Mr Barthe had said—peculiar about finding only the two of them in a boat. Two from a complement of some two hundred. He wished now that he had not revealed his knowledge of the Spanish tongue. It would have been less than gentlemanly, but he might have learned something of what had happened to them—assuming it was something other than what they claimed.
The younger brother made a hissing sound and whispered, “Listen . . . I believe he is awake.”
The conversation ceased forthwith.
Hayden realised his breathing must have changed as he woke, giving him away. As there was no more advantage to be gained, and this was commonly his hour to rise, he rolled out of his cot and commenced his morning toilet. Breakfast arrived, lamps lit.
Rustling behind the screen preceded the arrival of Miguel and, soon after, Angel.
Hayden rose. “I do apologise for the noise,” he offered. “I rise before the sun, but you, of course, may sleep as long as you wish.” He motioned to chairs. “Please, join me.”
“We are happy to rise when you do, Captain,” Miguel replied, sliding into a chair. “And please, it is your cabin. We well understand that the captain of a ship must come and go whenever his ship has need of him. Do not spend a moment in concern for us.”
Hayden’s steward and servant were quickly offering food.
“I tend to eat simply at sea,” Hayden informed them—half an apology. “I hope you won’t mind?”
“One grows so tired of elaborate meals,” Angel replied quickly. “And I find simple meals produce the best conversation.”
“I fear I might be a disappointment to you, Don Angel. Before I have had coffee I can barely mumble a few words.”
“Then you must have coffee, Captain,” he said, and motioned Hayden’s servant with such confidence that the man filled Hayden’s cup before he thought, and then turned red as a marine’s coat. Hayden let it pass, not wishing to embarrass his guest.
“We will begin a search today to see if there are any other survivors from your ship. Can you tell me, now, what occurred?”
Angel glanced at his brother, clearly deferring to him.
“We set off,” Miguel began, his face darkening, “three frigates from Cádiz, sailing for Vera Cruz. We were guests of Captain Andreu, who, as I said, was a friend of our late father. All went well until the gale. Captain Andreu told us to not be alarmed, for his ship had been through many much worse.” His voice lowered noticeably. “But that evening a mass was held for all the officers and men who were not on watch to pray for our deliverance. I could tell that the men were frightened and dismayed. Some appeared unnerved. Many of these men had spent their lives at sea. I assumed from this that the storm was much worse than Captain Andreu had told us.”
Hayden nodded. “Yes, we went through it as well. A hard gale—not a storm—but the seas were confused and steep and greater than the wind warranted.”
Miguel glanced at his brother as if Hayden had confirmed their own thoughts. “As we prayed, there was a thunderous, great crash and we were all thrown down upon the deck. Immediately, water began to rush in. Some men were orderly, but others made a rush for the ladders and in the panic trampled their crew mates. I was knocked down myself, and if some man, I know not who, had not hauled me up by my collar, I should have been killed. Captain Andreu got us to the deck and established order there. The men were frightened for their lives, but Captain Andreu had their respect. The ship was already down by the stern and sinking more rapidly than I would have thought possible. There was no saving it. We were told by the officers on deck that there had been a collision, but the other ship was not then to be seen.
“Captain Andreu put us in the first boat launched with a single crewman—I think you say a coxswain—and we were hoisted out and into the terrible seas. Men were to climb down into the boat then, but the ship suddenly rolled away from us and our boat was torn free. We were thrown down and the boat half filled. When I rose to my knees the coxswain was gone and the ship had rolled on its side. The seas drove us away from the ship. We bailed for our lives.
“I did not know how to manage a boat in such seas, but it hardly mattered; we became ill with the motion and could barely move. We bailed enough to stay afloat—fear being greater than our sickness. After a very long time the winds grew small and the seas less angered. The whole day we lay in the boat and prayed to be saved. And then, as night found us, Angel saw your ship far off on the horizon. The rest you know, Captain Hayden.”
Hayden took a fortifying sip of his coffee. “You were beyond lucky to have survived the sinking, and then to have been discovered at sea . . . Well, it is a vast ocean . . .”
Angel appeared moved, his eyes glistening. “God preserved us. There can be no other explanation.”
Hayden, who was less convinced that God intervened in the affairs of men, said nothing. “Don Angel, you have a bloodstain on your shirt and jacket,” Hayden noted. “Are you injured?”
Looking confused, Angel opened his coat, revealing a shirt stained a muddy red. “No. It is some other’s blood—from the melee, I think—but I do not know who.”
“Well, you were fortunate not to be injured.”
Angel fixed his gaze on Hayden. “You place a great deal of faith in luck, Captain.”
“It is the sailor’s superstition, Don Angel,” Hayden responded. “When I was a young midshipman, a ship fired grape at our quarterdeck from barely thirty yards off. Four of us stood together—three abreast and one behind me. We were, all of us, thrown down on the deck; the men to either side were wounded and the man directly behind me was killed. It was impossible. The shot would have had to pass through me to strike him, yet he was killed instantly. When he was examined by the surgeon, it was found that the shot had struck him in the chest and severed both a major artery and his spine. A miracle—or perhaps divine intervention—was the offered explanation for my survival. But then, we realised the ship’s bell had been struck at the same instant—struck at such an angle as to have deflected the grapeshot, killing my friend but missing me.”
Angel reached out and touched Hayden’s arm. “But you do not know that it was not a miracle or divine intervention, Captain. God might have preserved you for some other purpose.”
Hayden shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps it was to find you and your brother, adrift in a great ocean, just as you said. You must excuse me. I am called to the deck. We shall begin our search for survivors. It has only been a day. There is always flotsam; some men might yet be alive.”
Miguel rose as Hayden did and touched his brother on the shoulder. Angel appeared confused a moment and then came to his feet as well. Hayden went out.
Dawn was summoning its energies beyond the eastern horizon. The last remnants of the gale had blown clear and the stars glittered against the lightless sky.
“Captain on deck,” Hayden heard from nearby, and there was a rustling in the dark as men shifted or stood. Out of habit, Hayden went to the binnacle, but the ship was hove-to and did not really have a heading—and he could easily have told it from the stars on such a night.
“Captain . . .”
Hayden turned to find Archer approaching.
“Mr Archer,” Hayden replied. “All is well, I trust?”
“Perfectly well, sir. We have a fair topsail breeze, sir, and the sea has gone back down.”
“It is a fair breeze for Barbados, Mr Archer, but not necessarily so for our purposes.”
“I take your point, sir. I have detailed men to go aloft as lookouts, and I shall station men around the deck as well.”
“Have a boat cleared away and ready to launch, Mr Archer, in the chance that we find anyone.”
“Aye, sir. And how shall we proceed?”
“I shall confer with Mr Barthe, who I am certain has been consulting his charts, estimating the winds and currents, and has come to a conclusion. Even so, it is a needle in a haystack, Mr Archer, a bloody needle in a vast haystack.”
Hayden took a turn around the deck, as was his habit, and spoke here and there with the hands and officers. Many men were new, and Hayden was only now learning their names and character. A few had been fishermen or had sailed in merchant ships, but too many were landsmen snared by the press. These men were rather wide-eyed and silent; they had never experienced the ocean in its anger and were still shaken by it. Another day would see them begin to recover, Hayden thought. Then the relief would appear and they would start to breathe again and even laugh. The first bad gale at sea was always unnerving.
Upon his return to the quarterdeck, Hayden found Mr Barthe and Archer huddled in conversation.
“Mr Barthe,” Hayden addressed the older sailor, “I have confidence that you have given our pending search your most careful consideration?”
“I have spent some energies on it, Captain,” Barthe admitted. “Shall we look at a chart, sir?”
Mr Barthe had a temporary table set up under the upper deck just outside Hayden’s cabin, for charts were at once costly and invaluable. Without them, a ship wandered lost among unknown perils.
Hayden, Archer, and Barthe were joined by Wickham, the only midshipman senior enough to be included in such a gathering—indeed, Wickham had recently been acting lieutenant. Hayden allowed him certain privileges to soften the blow of being reduced to a mere reefer again.
In the glow of a lamp, Barthe indicated a pencilled circle.
“It is my best guess, Captain, that the Spanish frigate went down here. Allowing for wind, current, and seas, any boats would have been driven downwind . . .” Barthe put the point of his compass in the centre of the circle and drew a few degrees of arc dead downwind. “I do not believe a boat would have passed beyond this point in so short a time.” He tapped a little triangle between the arc and the circle. “We are here, sir. We have not held our position perfectly all night, but have been carried by the current and lost some to the wind as well. Even so, any boats or wreckage should be downwind of us. I believe we should sweep here, sir, forth and back perhaps two leagues either side of our present position.”
“Twelve miles, Mr Barthe,” Hayden observed. “That is a great area of ocean.”
“So it is, sir, but the winds varied somewhat in direction during the gale and even more so after.” Barthe met his eye. “To be safe, Captain.”
Hayden considered a moment, then turned to his first lieutenant. “Mr Archer, we will wear at the end of each sweep and keep the wind ahead of our quarter. If there are survivors, we must not miss them.”
“Aye, sir. When shall I begin, sir?”
“An hour after the sun is up, Mr Archer. And Mr Archer? Launch a cutter, if you please. In these seas I believe we can safely stream it manned.”
Barthe and Hayden were left alone over his chart, and Hayden related what the Spaniards had told him of the frigate’s sinking. Barthe shook his head and looked very grave.
“I do not hold out much hope of finding anyone else, sir.”
“No, but I for one will sleep better if I feel we have scoured the sea as best we can.”
“I agree entirely, Captain Hayden. To lie awake wondering if there was a man out there clinging to some bit of flotsam . . .” He tapped his chart. “If only for our own peace of mind we must make the most thorough search we can manage.” Barthe looked up at him. “And how fare our survivors, sir?”
“Better this morning. They ate, which I take as a very good sign.”
“Indeed it is. If they are the only two survivors . . . Well, maybe there is something to this papism, sir.”
Hayden laughed. “Mr Barthe, I am the only man aboard you should ever say that to.”
“It was but a momentary lapse, sir. It shall not be repeated.”
“Let us repair to the deck.”
Dawn had not yet chosen to make itself known, but the wind blowing from the north-east felt suddenly warmer. There was often a light squall of rain at sunrise, but this morning the horizon appeared devoid of low, dark cloud. The men who had gathered over Mr Barthe’s chart now stood in the stern of the ship, looking off to the east.
“How did Homer describe the fingers of dawn?” Hayden asked suddenly.
“‘Wine dark,’ was it not?” Barthe answered innocently.
“I believe it was ‘the wine-dark sea,’ Mr Barthe,” Archer said softly.
“And ‘rosy fingers of dawn,’” Wickham added.
“Ah, well, the fingers of dawn might well be ‘rosy,’” the sailing master asserted, “but I have never seen a ‘wine-dark sea.’”
“You lack a poetic soul, Mr Barthe,” came the voice of Lieutenant of Marines Hawthorne. “It often appears ‘wine dark’ in my experience.”
“I am certain it is, if you look through a fully charged claret glass, Mr Hawthorne,” Barthe replied, mock testily.
Hawthorne appeared among them, tall and erect. “Ah, that is the explanation. Homer must have done the same, I should think.” Hawthorne glanced from one to the other. “And why are we all staring off at the horizon?”
“We are awaiting the sun, Mr Hawthorne,” Archer told him, “so that we might begin our search for survivors.”
“The sun will arrive at its usual hour. All your staring will not change that. But by all means, do not let me discourage you. I am certain that Homer would approve.”
Eastern grey turned to crimson and then a rather spectacular gold. Archer sent lookouts aloft and all the midshipmen appeared with their glasses. Those not on watch went aloft as well. Hayden had often noted that anything that broke the monotony of a ship’s routine—especially on passage—was taken up by the men with great zeal. There were soon men all about the ship, scrutinizing the sea at every point of the compass.
Hayden ordered the ship underway and the morning trades quickly bellied the sails. Miguel and Angel appeared then, and Hayden invited them to the windward side of the quarterdeck, along with Mr Percival, the admiral’s poet-secretary. The sea, however, was uniformly empty of anything but water, though admittedly they did see petrels and a very fine specimen of the bosun bird.
The watch below soon tired of this and wandered off, a few at a time. They had all seen an empty ocean before. Hayden quizzed the sea with his glass, not so much because he thought he would find anything but because the lookouts would not want their captain to spot something from the deck before they saw it from aloft. The first lieutenant, Mr Archer, would quickly find a suitable punishment for such a failing.
The first sweep revealed nothing, but upon wearing and beginning their second sweep, flotsam began to appear—a grating, a gun carriage without its gun, a broken barrel. Standing on, they found a capsized boat, but a subsequent investigation revealed the larboard side had been stove in. All this did give Hayden some hope, however.
Just before noon, a lookout on the forward tops sang out: “On deck! Flotsam, two points off the larboard bow!”
Archer, who was forward, called up, “What is it, Higgins?”
“Don’t know, sir,” came the reply. “Mayhap the stump of a yard, Mr Archer. Might be men, sir, but they ain’t moving.”
Hayden and most of the guests went quickly forward. It took Hayden a moment to find this object in his glass, but finally he did.
Angel approached and stood beside him. “Are there men, Captain Hayden?” he asked softly.
“I cannot be certain.” Hayden handed the young man his glass.
After a moment of futile effort, Angel returned the glass to Hayden with a shrug. “I could find nothing.”
“There is a bit of a trick to it,” Hayden said. “Stare intently at the object and raise the glass to your eye without removing your gaze, even in the smallest degree. Easier said than done on a moving deck. It is one of those odd skills that, once learned, is never lost.”
Angel nodded, but Hayden could not help but think he looked unsettled, almost apprehensive.
The ship was hove-to and the cutter quickly surging over the waves, white sweeps catching the sunlight as they broke the surface then disappeared briefly into the sea, over and over. The little boat covered the hundred yards of heaving blue in record time and brought up smartly alongside the flotsam.
Hayden turned his gaze aloft. “Mr Wickham? Can you see what they do?”
Wickham’s head appeared from the tops. “I cannot, sir.” There was a murmur above; the head was withdrawn and then reappeared. “They appear to have taken aboard a man, sir.”
The midshipman shrugged. “I cannot say, Captain.”
Hayden beckoned one of the hands. “Pass the word for the doctor, if you please.” And the man ran off, bare feet padding along the gangway.
The cutter was soon making its steady way back to the Themis, Hayden’s own coxswain, Childers, at the tiller. Hands, officers, and guests gathered at the rail, staring at the boat, which was laid expertly alongside. A hammock was lowered. A moment later it came up the side, bearing the body of a young man, bits of sea grass tangled in his hair and streaming from his limbs. He was laid out on the planks, eyes closed, a stain of glittering seawater overspreading the deck about him.
“There is no need for me to examine this man,” came the doctor’s voice. He had appeared at Hayden’s side. “Drowned.”
“Did you know him?” Hayden asked Miguel and Angel, both of whom looked terribly grim. They stared at their own fate, lying before them, evaded by the smallest margin.
“I did not, Captain,” Miguel replied, “but the names of the crewmen were unknown to me.”
“Pedro,” Angel whispered. “His name was Pedro. His family name I did not know. He was well liked.” He turned to Hayden. “What will you do with him?”
“We have no choice but to bury him at sea. I will consult our parson as to how this should best be done. We realise, of course, that he is of your church and not ours.”
Angel nodded and turned his attention back to the man lying on the deck. “So many died without last rites. I believe God will not mind.”
In the end the man was sewn into the hammock used to lift him to the deck and slipped over the side, after Mr Smosh had intoned some suitably neutral words. The search continued, but the excitement and novelty had been extinguished by the discovery of the dead sailor. Two hundred men had almost certainly gone down into the dark depths, and it was a sobering realisation for every man aboard.
By mid-afternoon the search was abandoned and Hayden ordered the Themis back on her course for Barbados. The north-east trade had returned and sped the ship along, her sails full and drawing. She rolled heavily in these conditions, but there was nothing for it.
Over supper Hayden could not help but feel his Spanish guests looked both haunted and relieved, and though the former was easily understood, the latter was not, causing him to wonder if he was not, somehow, mistaken about their feelings.
Later, Hayden ascended to the deck, where he stood by the taffrail, admiring the stars and small moon. It was a close night, for they had entered the zone of equatorial summer; soon, no doubt, they would be cursing the heat, after longing for it the previous weeks. It was as fine a night at sea as Hayden could remember. The trades had eased a little after sunset and the motion of the ship was more civilised, yet she still hurried on her way.
Hayden set out on a circuit of the deck, to stretch his legs and settle his supper. He made his way along the starboard gangway to the forecastle, where Archer intercepted him, coming the other way.
“Have you come to take a turn of the deck, Mr Archer?”
“I have come, sir, from the midshipmen’s reading society.”
“Have you? And how went your meeting this evening?”
“Most instructive, Captain. Mr Maxwell produced a poem by Shakespeare which provoked the most lively discussion.”
“And was Mr Percival in attendance?”
“He was, sir, and uncommonly silent on the matter of our interest. He retreated to his cabin the moment we drew to a close. I confess, I felt a little sorry for him.”
Hayden nodded. “Have you experienced a more lovely evening at sea, Mr Archer?”
“Hardly, sir. I can almost imagine I smell the perfume of the island flowers already.”
“You have an acute sense of smell—they are more than a sennight off yet.”
Archer accompanied Hayden back up the larboard gangway, where Hayden’s eye ran over every little detail of his ship that could be made out in the dim light. It was well known among his crew that nothing amiss escaped his notice. For most of the crew it was a matter of pride that the captain would find nothing to trouble his eye. For the rest, it was a matter of angering the bosun, who was a large man, and, though Hayden believed him kindly by nature, he was not averse to doing his duty and inflicting as severe a punishment as he believed a given transgression required.
Hayden and Archer parted at the quarterdeck, Archer going below and Hayden returning for a moment to the taffrail. He stood there, admiring the night, listening to the sounds of his ship speeding across the vast ocean. A whisper reached him, coming up through the open skylight. Feeling rather ignoble, he crept silently nearer.
“No one but the English know we are alive,” Miguel said in Spanish. “To everyone else, we are dead. We may claim to be anyone we wish. Anyone at all.”
“But the English will not keep our existence a secret,” Angel replied, just as softly.
“No, but we will have time to find a ship in Barbados—to slip away.”
“And how will we pay for our passage, Miguel? Everything we possessed has gone to the bottom of the sea.”
“There will be a way. I will find it.”
“I still believe we can confide in Captain Hayden. He is a good man; I feel it.”
“No doubt you are right, but he is, above all things, dutiful. A typical Englishman.”
“Captain . . . ?” The man at the helm spoke quietly. “I believe I saw a light, sir.” He gestured to starboard.
At the sound of a voice the Spaniards went silent and Hayden crept away as stealthily as he could. When he was a dozen feet off he said clearly, “Where away?”
And damned if it was not a light! Hayden called up to the lookouts, who spotted it almost immediately. Ransome came hurrying along the deck, whence he had been overseeing the renewal of some chafing gear.
“I will deal with the lookouts, Captain . . .” he said as he mounted the quarterdeck, “. . . suitably.”
“I have no doubt of it, Mr Ransome, but what of this light?”
“On deck!” the lookout on the main-top called down. “Light a league off our starboard beam, Mr Ransome. Appears to be moving north, sir.”
“Away from us,” the lieutenant said. “I wonder if she is one of the Spaniards.”
“It would seem unlikely. They were headed for Vera Cruz.”
“Shall we alter course, sir, to close with them at first light?”
“I think we have lost enough time on this crossing, Mr Ransome. Let us continue on our way.”
“Aye, sir.” He touched his hat and turned away, calling out, “Mr Hobson? Replace the lookout on the main-top, if you please.”
And so Hayden was left standing at the starboard rail, watching a mysterious light rise and disappear, growing ever smaller.
No one but the English know we are alive.
We may claim to be anyone we wish. Anyone at all.
It would appear that Mr Barthe would be proven right; there was something peculiar about these two brothers. And Hayden thought it best he find out what—perhaps also typical of an Englishman.
There were, aboard his ship, a number of men Hayden trusted utterly. Indeed, he had trusted them with his very life on more than one occasion. However, it was not merely a question of trust that caused Hayden to choose Dr Griffiths, Lord Arthur Wickham, and Lieutenant of Marines Hawthorne as his confidants. The certainty that they would not betray a confidence was every bit as important. Finding a place to speak privately, however, on so small a ship was almost a greater difficulty than deciding who should be included in the conversation.
Normally, Hayden would have arranged such meetings in his cabin, but as he now had two guests, and they were the subject he wished to discuss, he had been forced to look elsewhere. The foretops would have been ideal for his purpose—send the lookout down and they would have all the privacy one could ask for—but the good doctor did not like climbing to heights. In the end, Hayden led his companions down to the orlop, where, outside the door to the forward powder magazine, they held their discussion, standing but a spark away from utter destruction. As quietly as he was able, Hayden related what he had overheard the previous night while lingering by the skylight.
Immediately Griffiths asked, “If they are not who they claim to be, then who are they?”
Hayden shook his head. “I do not know.”
“It does sound like they are running from something,” Wickham observed. “I wonder what it might be?”
“The law?” Dr Griffiths suggested.
“They do not seem like criminals to me,” Hawthorne replied thoughtfully. He crouched between the beams, steadying himself with one hand.
“True, Mr Hawthorne,” the surgeon said, “but that is the business of certain criminals—appearing not to be what they are.”
“They seem rather young for that game,” Hawthorne replied, a little defensively.
“I am certain we could speculate until we reach our old age,” Hayden told them, “and conclude nothing. I am asking your aid in discovering who our guests might be and what their intentions are. Mr Wickham, you are near the age of Angel, so perhaps you could make some effort to befriend him. He might have need of a confidant. Your particular charm, Mr Hawthorne, could be put to good use in our cause.”
“Ah, if only these Spaniards were señoritas,” Griffiths said, and grinned. “They would soon be telling our good lieutenant their most intimate secrets.”
“And, of course, you, Doctor,” Hayden continued, “who knows what they might let slip in conversation—for who does not trust their doctor?”
Griffiths gave a small shrug.
“And I am sharing my cabin with them and so might glean a fact or two. We shall see. If they are lying about their identity, what else might they be hiding? Did their ship really founder after collision? Why was there blood on Angel’s clothing?”
“I should keep a close eye on my valuables, Captain,” Griffiths cautioned. “They sound desperate for money.”
“I have so few valuables. Turning me over would hardly be worth the effort.”
Wickham looked thoughtfully at Hayden. “I do not suppose, sir, it would be possible simply to confront these brothers with your doubts about their story?”
“Only if one is prepared to fight a duel,” Hawthorne replied cheerfully. “These Spaniards . . . they do not take anyone traducing their honour very kindly.”
“Perhaps not a good idea, then,” Wickham allowed quietly.
“It would seem to me,” Griffiths offered, “that young Angel believes that you, Captain, can be trusted with their secret—whatever it might be. I suggest our best hope of finding out who these young men are lies with you.”
“I will do all I can,” Hayden assured him.
“I am not certain why we care,” Hawthorne observed. “What is it to us? Undoubtedly, the Spanish authorities might want to know who these two gentlemen are, but unless there is a reward offered for their apprehension I cannot see why it should matter to us in the least.”
Hayden was rather taken aback by this. “The Spanish Navy will certainly want to speak to what appear to be the only two survivors from a crew of some two hundred souls—and that is if only one ship sank. It was a collision; we do not know what became of the other ship. They are keeping back some information—I do not know what.”
This caused a moment of silence, but Hawthorne’s objection had taken root; Hayden felt it as well. What was this matter to them? Why did he care if the Spaniards were lying?
“It seems to me,” Wickham offered quietly, “that if Angel was suggesting they confide in you, Captain, they can hardly be criminals. No, there is some other reason they do not want it known that they have survived. Perhaps we might learn their story by offering them our aid?”
“A difficult bargain to make until you know what it is they are hiding,” Griffiths stated.
“Nor is time our ally in this matter. We are but a week out from Barbados.”
It was on this uncertain note that their gathering adjourned.
Sleep was a difficult proposition for Angel Campillo. He moaned and muttered and woke often from nightmare. Being cast adrift in a small boat in a strong gale and coming so near to death was enough to give a hardened sea officer nightmares, Hayden thought; he could not imagine what such an experience would be like for a landsman. The muttering, though almost loud enough to be clear, was in Spanish, and largely indecipherable to him.
He did, to the best of his abilities, make himself amiable and approachable, spending considerable energies to win the trust of the Spaniards. The more he spoke with them, the more he found them congenial company, good-hearted and kind. Miguel was undoubtedly more guarded and wary, but Angel seemed more troubled. This manifested itself in brooding and a kind of pained distraction, his attention focused on things not present.
Perhaps four days after their discovery, Hayden found himself alone at the breakfast table with Angel for the first time; the two brothers were ordinarily almost inseparable.
“And where is your brother?” Hayden enquired.
“Off with Mr Hawthorne, for what purpose I cannot say.”
Well, Hayden thought, the marine lieutenant was apparently doing his part.
“You slept well, I trust?”
Angel made a face—almost a grimace. “As well as I do commonly.”
“If I may be permitted to observe, Angel, you appear to be much affected by your recent misfortune.”
“Misfortune, Captain Hayden? My brother and I were delivered from certain death . . . when so many others were lost. That is not misfortune . . . at least not for us.”
Hayden nodded. “That is true, but do not suffer any guilt over your good luck. It was beyond your control . . . everything that occurred.”
Angel looked away, thoughtful a moment. “Do I appear to be suffering guilt, Captain?”
“I do not know, Angel, but many do. I have seen it. A single member of a gun crew will survive a battle and then be tormented by some species of guilt that he alone lived when all the others perished. Often, they feel it undeserved.”
Angel nodded. “I do feel . . . great distress that so many others died while my brother and I were spared. I do not understand why . . . why us and not the others? And, yes, it does not feel deserved, though it is not my place to question the purpose of God.” He looked at Hayden then. “But I am not the only resident of this cabin who appears troubled, Captain Hayden. I imagine at times that you suffer some regret or sorrow.”
Hayden had been at pains to hide this . . . but apparently was not as successful as he believed. He wondered if it was obvious to all or if only Angel had seen it because he shared Hayden’s cabin.
“Disappointed hopes, Angel. A common affliction for sea officers, I fear. It is no small thing for a woman to marry a man who will spend his life at sea.”
“And often in danger,” Angel added.
“And that, as well. The cure for me shall be employment, which I hope to have plenty of once we reach Barbados. There is nothing worse than a long sea passage with little or nothing to break the monotony. One has far too much time to contemplate one’s troubles—an unhealthy state, to be sure.”
“There are many ways to avoid one’s troubles, Captain—wine, gambling . . . brothels. Sometimes the enemy must be faced head-on. As an officer, I am quite certain you know this to be true.”
“I do, but some enemies are not so easily vanquished and there is no choice but to fly from them . . . until one has time to gather one’s resources.”
“That is true as well, Captain Hayden.” He raised his coffee cup as though to offer a toast. “To the enemies we flee—may we turn to vanquish them one day very soon.”
“Hear,” Hayden responded, lifting his cup.
As Hayden made his way to the deck not long after, he had the strange feeling that Angel had learned more of Hayden’s secrets than he had of the Spaniard’s. For some reason, he found this very slightly amusing—he did not know why.
The day dawned and the sun burned down, its unrelenting fire relieved only by the constant cooling trades, sifting down skylights and scuttles and through the open gallery windows in Hayden’s cabin. On such days Hayden thought there was no better place to be in all the world, sails full and drawing, the crew busy about the ship, the broad-backed waves of the trades stretching off to the far horizon, a vast depth of blue both above and below. Mother Carey’s Chickens scuttled across a surface broken now and then by porpoises or a distant whale. Below, in the shadow of the passing ship, a small population of fish—dorados, striped pilot fish, and others Hayden did not know—had taken up residence and remained on station day after day. During the dark hours, schools of flying fish would smack into the topsides and occasionally one or two would make it onto the deck, where the ship’s cats patrolled in hopes of finding a fresh supper.
The great enemy on such crossings, where the sails were set and sometimes their sheets not touched for days at a time, was chafe, and the bosun and his mates were seemingly always at work aloft, renewing thrummed mats and scotchmen, the slush bucket in steady employ. It was a happy ship, Hayden thought, which gave him a small sense of pride.
There was, however, a pall hanging over his vessel—a palpable anxiety, if not a bridled fear. Its source was no secret: They were sailing towards the breeding ground of the Yellow Jack—the fever that killed without distinction of age, vigour, or rank. It was well known among hands and officers alike that, once contracted, recovery was beyond rare. This disturbing knowledge was a weight balanced against the very real prospect of rich prizes, for the seas to which they sailed were a cruiser’s dream—provided one survived to collect. Hayden often heard the men whispering—stories of crew mates who had caught the Yellow Jack—the stories almost always ending the same. There was, however, one man aboard who it was claimed—and he did not deny it—had come down with the dreaded fever and, against all odds, survived. His name was Jimmy Walker, though he was known as “Yellow Jack” among his mates—or just “Jack.”
“Ask Jack about the fever,” one of the men would say, and he would saunter over and regale them with his gruesome tale—how a dozen men in the sick-berth all perished while he lived—a miracle he attributed to an overly regular intake of sauerkraut, which was sometimes carried aboard ships as an antiscorbutic. As a result, the ship’s allotment of sauerkraut was diminishing at a rapid rate and the men continued to request it at almost every meal. Dr Griffiths was of the opinion it had no effect in warding off either the scurvy or Yellow Fever, but Hayden allowed it to be served regularly because it eased the fears of some of the men and he well knew that the men feared disease even above the dangers of battle.
The forenoon was a bustle of work about the ship, and Hayden found himself often in consultation with his lieutenants, who were yet unseasoned, and Mr Barthe, whose experience outstripped Hayden’s by more than two decades but who never acted beyond his station. The activity about the ship continued into the first dog-watch.
When the sun had made its way into the west, Hayden found himself alone upon his sacred stretch of quarterdeck, and was drawn to the stern by the sparkling wake and some flicker on the distant horizon—likely a crest caught by the sun. He stood with his legs braced against the roll of the ship—for with a quartering sea she did roll terribly—hands upon the taffrail, almost too hot to touch in the sun.
It was then that the voice drifted up to him—speaking ever so softly in Spanish. “Heavenly Father,” Angel whispered, “I thank you for delivering Miguel and me from certain destruction. I ask your forgiveness for the terrible sin I have committed and for which I shall do penance all of my days. I do not know, Heavenly Father, why you preserved my earthly life. I pray it is to allow me to erase this dreadful stain. If it is your will, I shall offer my life in your service. But if it is your will, Heavenly Father, that I shall endure punishment for my sin, I will accept it without complaint as your obedient servant. Your will be done. Amen.”
Hayden heard a rustling below as Angel rose from where he knelt by the gallery window. It was only then that Hayden realised his shadow was very starkly cast down upon the sea astern.
Not a moment later Angel emerged at the head of the aft companionway, clearly hurrying. Hayden had not seen any point in rushing off or trying to conceal where he had been—his silhouette, with its distinctive hat, was unlikely to be mistaken for that of anyone else.
Angel came quickly aft and Hayden beckoned him onto the windward side of the deck—the small area reserved for the captain. He leaned over the taffrail, as though assuring himself of the distance to the open gallery windows.
As a commander in numerous actions, Hayden had learned it was best not to wait but to seize the initiative. In this case, however, he felt it best to “boldly” retreat.
“I do apologise, Angel,” Hayden offered contritely. “I came to the rail just as you completed your prayer. It was not my intention to eavesdrop upon your conversation with God.”
“You heard me, then?” A wary look, sidelong.
“Only at the very last.”
Angel stood, staring out to sea for a long moment, perhaps unable to find words or uncertain how he felt. Then he nodded.
“When we were cast adrift,” he began, his voice tight, “there were three of us: my brother, myself, and a seaman. He was an uncouth, brutal man, but he kept us all alive through the storm when my brother and I were too ill even to bail. When the storm passed we all understood our true peril. We had no food and only a small amount of rainwater we had collected in a bucket.” Angel stopped again, taking hold of the rail, as if the memories crept over him, too real to bear. “This seaman, he would not share the water but threatened us with a knife and let us go thirsty. I had, secreted in my jacket, a small package wrapped in oilskin. When this man realised it, he thought I was hiding food, or perhaps valuables. He demanded it, and when I refused he attempted to wrest it from me by force. He and Miguel fought, but the sailor was a large, strong man, and he threw Miguel into the sea and then turned on me. What I had hidden in my jacket was not food—it was a pocket pistol, carefully wrapped and still dry. I could not let him take it, so I . . .” He closed his eyes and steadied himself. “I shot him . . . through the heart . . . and he collapsed upon me. That is why my shirt was soaked in blood. I helped Miguel back into the boat.” Angel paused for a second. “Less than an hour passed before the seaman departed this life; we rolled him over the side. That is my sin, Captain Hayden. I killed a man.”
Hayden felt himself nod, trying to hide his utter surprise—he had been expecting a much more innocent sin from the likes of Angel Campillo. “Clearly, you acted in self-defence,” Hayden assured him. “You and your brother might not be alive otherwise.”
Angel appeared to take no comfort from Hayden’s assertion. “It was proven to me, Captain, by the appearance of your ship that I was under the protection of God. Killing the man was not necessary. It was a moment of weakness . . . weakness of faith.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of S. Thomas Russell:
“Russell’s encyclopedic command of nautical lore, joined to his rare ability to spin a ripping yarn, places the reader right in the middle of the action, of which there is plenty...He creates characters and situations that stay in the reader’s memory even as memories of broadsides and cutlass duels fade.”—Neal Stephenson, New York Times bestselling author of The Mongoliad
“Fans of Patrick O'Brian’s works and other novels in the naval adventure genre will enjoy…A fast-paced and eventful narrative…The novel benefits from thorough research and a mastery of the technical details of sailing in the 1790s.”—Library Journal
“A colorful account of duty and honor, punctuated by the cannonade of naval warfare.”—Kirkus Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
High seas adventure in the great tradition of O'Brien and Kent. We only wish Russell could write faster. Be sure to start with the first novel.