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Authors: Richard Woodman

Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Historical, #Sea Stories

Ebb Tide (10 page)

BOOK: Ebb Tide
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Amongst the men ordered into the lower rigging to see the royal yards run clear aloft was Roach. He had been rated landsman, as was customary, but as a former troop corporal of light dragoons, he was an active and an intelligent man. Whatever the shortcomings of their fellow landsmen, neither Roach nor his fellow-cavalryman Hollins lacked courage. Contemptuous of their new Service, they flung themselves into the rigging as though charging an enemy, disdaining to be associated with the drabber, duller men of the Sheerness draft. They were not yet of much use aloft but were clearly the raw material of which upper topmen were made, and their dare-devilment had already earned a grudging admiration from
Cyclops's
people, especially those who had observed the state of their backs.

In descending the foremast rigging Roach, aware that to go through the lubber's-hole was considered the coward's path, was about to fling himself over the edge of the top and into the futtock shrouds. The heels of his hessian boots, which he had found an indispensable weapon on the lower deck, trod on the up-reaching fingers of Midshipman Baskerville just then ascending the mast with his telescope. Hearing the youth's shout, Roach drew back into the top and, as the midshipman came over the edge, muttered a half-hearted apology. But he was grinning and this, combined with the sharp pain, provoked Baskerville.

'You bloody fool! You've made me drop the glass! What the devil d'you mean by wearing those festerin' boots, damn your eyes?'

'Doin' my duty,
sir.'
The dragoon drew out the last syllable so that it oozed from him like a sneer and he did it with the studied insolence of twenty years of barrack-room experience, deeply resenting the authority of the young oaf. Roach pressed his advantage. 'I apologized to you,
Mr
Baskerville.' Again there was that sibilant distortion in the tide which set Baskerville fuming while Roach persisted in his grinning. But then another figure appeared in the top. It was a boatswain's mate.

'Mr Jackson,' Baskerville asked quickly, 'd'you see that man's grin?'

'Aye, I do.'

'Then mark it well, Jackson, mark it well and take the bugger's name!'

'Very well, sir. Here's your glass. You were fortunate I caught it.'

Baskerville almost snatched the telescope from Jackson's outstretched hand, then, without another word, swung himself into the topmast shrouds and scrambled upwards.

And what have you done to upset Mr Baskerville, Roach?' the boatswain's mate asked.

'I trod on his fingers, Mr Jackson, and I apologized.'

Jackson shook his head. 'Tch, tch, tch. There's no fucking justice, is there? I wish you'd trodden on his fucking head, but you'll get a checked shirt for this, my lad, or my name's not Harry Jackson.'

 

Blackmore's prediction turned out to be accurate and the sail revealed herself as the brig
Margaret
of Newcastle, bound from Hamburg to London with timber and flax. At the frigate's signal she hove to and
Cyclops
rounded up under her lee quarter, backing her own maintopsail. Alongside Drinkwater, Blackmore muttered, 'Damn, you can smell the turpentine from here!'

Callowell leapt up on to the rail and raised a speaking-trumpet to his mouth. 'You're not in convoy, Mister. Any sign of enemy ships?'

'Aye,' responded a stout figure at the
Margarets
rail in the unmistakable accents of the Tyne, 'convoy dispersed by a ship-rigged Frenchman. He took twa vessels oot of tha ten of us. Be aboot twenty guns.'

'What of your escort?'

'A bomb-vessel. She couldn't work to windward before the Frenchman made off.'

'Where away?'

'Norderney!'

'Thank you, Captain!
Bon voyage
!' The patrician accent of Captain Smetherley replaced the abrupt Callowell. For once he had the situation in hand. 'Haul your maintopsail, Mr Callowell. Mr Blackmore, lay me a course for Norderney, if you please. Let's see if we can catch this damned Frog.'

'Lay
me,
be damned,' Blackmore muttered to Drinkwater and then, raising his voice, called out, 'Aye, aye, sir.'

 

Summary justice was a principle upon which Jonas Callowell dealt with all matters of discipline and good order. If an offence was committed, it was swiftly punished. When he received Baskerville's complaint he reported to Smetherley who lounged in his cabin, a glass of port in one hand.

'Damned rascal was insolent to the midshipman, insolence witnessed by Jackson, sir.'

'Jackson, Mr Callowell?'

'Bosun's mate.'

'Ahhh.' Smetherley took a mouthful of port and rolled it around his tongue, swallowed and smacked his lips. He looked up at Callowell with a frown. And you demand punishment?'

'Of course, sir. For the maintenance of discipline. Absolutely indispensable,' Callowell replied, a little astonished.

'Naturally, Mr Callowell, but the principle of mercy ... does it enter into the particulars of this case?'

'Not to my mind, sir,' said Callowell, who had never heard anything so damned stupid.

'Will two dozen suffice for insolence to a midshipman?'

'As you see fit, sir,' responded Callowell drily, but Smetherley, pouring another glass of port, needed to maintain the fiction of command and enjoyed a little light-hearted baiting of his first lieutenant.

'What, if you were in my position, would you give the man, Mr Callowell?'

'I'd smother the bugger with the captain's cloak, sir.'

'Three dozen, eh? Isn't that a trifle hard?'

'Not in my view, sir.'

'Mr Baskerville is a somewhat forward young man. His only redeeming feature, as far as I can see, is a rather lovely sister.' Smetherley pulled a face over the rim of his glass. 'But that would not concern you, Mr Callowell. Two dozen will suffice, I think.'

'As you see fit, sir,' Callowell repeated, leaving the cabin.

 

Roach was confined to the bilboes until the watch changed. When Appleby heard, he hurried to the gunroom where the first lieutenant was tossing off a pot of blackstrap.

'You cannot mean this, Mr Callowell?'

'Mean what?' asked Callowell, whose contempt for the surgeon's humanity was only exceeded by his dislike of the man himself whom he regarded as a meddling old wind-bag.

'Why flogging Roach, of course!'

'And why, pray, should I not flog Roach?' asked Callowell, lowering his tankard and staring at Appleby. 'Is he not guilty of insolence to an officer?'

'A very junior, inexperienced
under
officer,' Appleby expostulated testily, 'a mere insolent aspirant himself, without skill and wanting common manners to boot, but that is not the point...'

'Then for God's sake get to your damned point, Appleby!'

'How many's he getting?'

'Two dozen.'

'Two dozen! But that's twice the permitted limit for a post-captain to award!'

'Are you questioning the captain's authority, Mr Appleby? My word, you'd make a fine sight at the gratings yourself!'

'Damn it, Mr Callowell, you have no right...'

'Is that your point, Appleby?' Callowell broke in impatiently.

'No, no it isn't.' Appleby collected himself. 'Mr Callowell, Roach was given two hundred and fifty lashes after his court martial. I am empowered to prevent...'

'I've no doubt but that he deserved them,' broke in Callowell. 'As for your being empowered to do anything, Mr Appleby, I believe it is limited to advice. Well, thank you for your advice. It was my advice to Captain Smetherley that Roach be given
three
dozen ...'

'I daresay it was, but heed me. The man's back is in no state to suffer further punishment. You'll kill the fellow'

'So much the better. The man is no good to us, he will be nothing but trouble.' 'But...'

Callowell's emptied tankard crashed down upon the table and he rose to his feet, leaned across it and thrust his face into that of the surgeon. 'Listen, Appleby, do you cure the pox, the gaol fever, the itch, button scurvy and the clap, and when you can do all that you may come back here and teach me
my
duty. Now take your damnable cant back to where you belong and keep your fat arse out of the gunroom. It's for the commissioned officers, not bloody tradesmen. Get out!'

Appleby departed with what dignity he could muster, but word of the encounter percolated rapidly through the ship. The surgeon himself was far from capitulating. He approached Captain Smetherley and obtained a stay of execution of two days, until the Sunday following. It was unlikely to achieve anything other than to compel the inexperienced Smetherley to think again and, in the event, Appleby's compassion misfired badly. The delay only served to fuel resentment at Roach's sentence. Strict discipline made the life of the decent majority of the ship's company bearable, saving them from the predatory conduct of the worst elements of their own kind. But a virtual death sentence on a grown man of proven courage for insolence to a boy whose authority far exceeded his abilities and who had yet to prove his mettle to the hands, was a different matter.

Drinkwater was more aware of the state of things than the feckless wastrels who pounded Baskerville's back in congratulation as though he had won a great victory. He wished he had known of the matter before Baskerville had reported it to Callowell. Watching the scene, he determined matters could not go on and, now that they all appeared recovered from their seasickness, the moment seemed opportune. White was absent on deck and Drinkwater laid down the book he had been trying to read by the guttering illumination of the purser's dip.

'You sicken me, you really do.'

Silence fell on the rabble and the four faces turned towards him. 'Whom are you addressing?' Baskerville asked superciliously.

'All of you,' replied Drinkwater, staring up at their half-lit faces. In the gloom they possessed a diabolical appearance. 'You are a scandalous disgrace. It is likely that Roach will die, if not under punishment then as a consequence of it. If you had a shred of decency, Baskerville, you would go at once and withdraw the charge, say it was a mistake and apologize.'

'Why you contemptuous shit, Drinkwater,' said Baskerville, looking round at his friends. 'He needs a licking...'

'If one of you so much as lays a finger on me,' Drinkwater said, reaching up to where his French sword was slung by its scabbard rings on the deck beam overhead, 'I'll slit his gizzard.' He drew the blade with a rasp. 'Four to one is Frenchmen's odds, my fine bantam cocks, and you've yet to see action. Please, don't give me the excuse.' He paused. Irresolution was already visible in one or two faces and the light played on the wicked blade of the French sword. 'No, don't give me the excuse to defend myself, or I might take singular pleasure in it.'

Drinkwater rose. 'Brooke,' he said quietly, addressing the youngest of the midshipmen before him, 'go and fetch Jacob.' The boy hesitated and looked at Baskerville for permission, whereupon Drinkwater commanded, 'Go boy!' and Brooke scampered off in search of the messman. While he was gone, Drinkwater dragged his chest out, opened it and threw his belongings into it. A moment later the messman appeared, rubbing sleep from his eyes. 'Jacob, move my chest and hammock forrard. I shall sleep with the marines.'

'Aye, aye, sir.'

Drinkwater paused at the canvas curtain that served to screen off that portion of the orlop known as the cockpit. 'The stink of puppy-dogs in here is overpowering!'

 

By Sunday morning
Cyclops
had passed Norderney without sighting any enemy cruiser. The wind had dropped and there was a mist which persisted into the forenoon, resisting the sun's heat.

'Dense fog by nightfall,' Blackmore remarked.

After divine service the hands remained mustered to witness the punishment. The officers gathered about the captain; the marines lined the hammock nettings, their bayonets fixed. In the waist, over two hundred men were assembled. They murmured softly, like a swarm of bees. Triced up in the main shrouds, the grating awaited the prisoner.

Roach was escorted on deck by two boatswain's mates. He walked upright between them, his shirt loose and his breeches tucked into the offending boots. At the grating he took off his shirt, revealing the scabbed welts and blue bruising of his former punishment. The murmuring was replaced by a low rumbling.

'Silence!' commanded Callowell.

Smetherley stepped forward. 'Landsman Roach, I tolerate no insolence to my officers, commissioned or otherwise, aboard any ship under my command. You will receive two dozen lashes. Bosun's mates, do your duty!'

'Trice him up!' Callowell ordered, and Roach was thrust forward and his wrists seized and strapped to the grating. One of the men grabbed his hair and jerked his head back to shove a leather wad into his mouth.

'Shame!' called a voice from forward. It was answered by a chorus of anonymous 'Ayes!' from the crowd amidships. Wheeler drew his sword and commanded the marine drummer to beat his snare. Callowell bawled, 'Lay on!'

The two boatswain's mates, each with a cat-o'-nine-tails, began to administer the punishment, six lashes each in succession, while the drummer manfully maintained his roll and the men mouthed their disapproval. Roach spat the leather wad from his mouth and roared defiant curses until, at about the nineteenth stroke, he fell silent.

Drinkwater felt an utter revulsion at the spectacle. He sought distraction by observing the other officers. Appleby stood rigid, his portly frame wracked by sobs, the sheen of angry tears upon his ruddy cheeks. Blackmore gazed out over the heads of the crew, sure that the foremast catharpings could do with some attention. Wheeler stood like a statue, his drawn sword across his breast, his eyes flickering restlessly over the ship's company, waiting for the first sign of trouble. Callowell too watched the men, but with less apprehension than the marine officer. Blinded by the insensitivity of a life circumscribed by duty, he possessed no imagination, no compassion and few feelings for others.
Cyclops
was a man-of-war and sentiment of any kind was out of place upon her decks. To a man of Callowell's stamp, the emergence of personality among the people was an affront, and his cruelty stemmed from this conviction rather than any sadistic impulse. It was his lot to administer, and theirs to endure.

BOOK: Ebb Tide
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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