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Authors: Richard Woodman

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

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BOOK: Ebb Tide
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'Mind the force of the flood now, Thomas,' he said with quiet authority, catching Drinkwater's eye, then looking hurriedly away again towards the ship. Drinkwater followed his gaze. She was an ungainly brute, he thought, her great funnel and huge, grey paddle-boxes dominating the black hull. He supposed by her two masts that she was, technically at least, a brigantine, but the presence of the funnel gave so great a spread to them that she lacked all pretence at the symmetry and elegance he thought of as characterizing the rig. He recalled the brig-rigged
Hellebore
and her handiness, and could find no indication that
Vestal
might be manoeuvred with such facility. He grunted, and Quier shot him a quick glance, to be recalled by the boom of the gun at which the young man jumped involuntarily while the men at the oars grinned.

'Sunset gun, sir,' Quier observed unnecessarily.

'Yes, indeed.'

Drinkwater smiled to himself; poor Quier seemed a rather nervous young man and he himself was a damned old fool. He had forgotten the ship ahead of them had a steam engine, even though the confounded thing proclaimed itself by that hideous black column!

'How does she handle, Mr Quier?' Drinkwater asked, nodding at the
Vestal.
'I presume you can back one paddle and pull or', he added with a self-deprecating shrug, abandoning the metaphor familiar to men used to pulling boats, 'put it astern, eh?'

'Indeed yes, sir. She handles very well in smooth water. She can be turned in her own length.'

Drinkwater regarded the younger man. 'You can turn a brig in her own length, you know. I suppose a brigantine is not so handy.'

'Not quite, sir, but for either you need a wind.'

'Of course ...' The folly of old age assailed Drinkwater again and he smiled ruefully to himself. There was no point in feeling foolish; one simply had to endure it with the consolation that it would come even to this young man one day. He reassessed Quier. The young man was shy, not nervous. It occurred to Drinkwater that he might be a rather intimidating figure, sitting stiffly in the
Vestal's
cutter.

But Quier was overcoming his diffidence and was not going to let Drinkwater escape so easily. 'Is this the first steam-ship you have been aboard, sir?'

'No, I made a short passage on the sloop
Rhadamanthus —
oh, I suppose eight or nine years ago, just after Evans brought her back across the Atlantic, but I'm afraid I don't recall how well we manoeuvred.' Drinkwater paused, recollecting something the second officer had said. 'You mentioned
Vestal
manoeuvred well in fine weather ...'

'In a smooth sea, yes, sir. She isn't so handy when a chop is running.'

'Oh?'

'It's the paddles, d'you see,' Quier explained, his pleasant face betraying his enthusiasm. 'They function best at a particular draught; if the ship rolls heavily, the deeper paddle has greater effect than the shallower one. When steering a course the inequities tend to cancel each other out, but when manoeuvring, matters aren't so predictable.'

'I see. D'you use the sails to help?'

'You can, sir, but we don't usually have sufficient men to do all that if we are manoeuvring to lift a buoy.'

'No, of course not...'

'And when we set our sails to assist the steam engine, the steady heel, though more comfortable, tends to hold one paddle down all the time.'

'Yes,' Drinkwater nodded, 'yes, I comprehend that.'

'You see, it doesn't usually matter too much, sir, because we can only pick up buoys in reasonably good weather ...'

'Yes, of course,' Drinkwater broke in. Then, seeing Quier's crestfallen look at the interruption, he added, 'A long time ago, Mr Quier, I myself served in the buoy-yachts.'

Quier looked at his passenger in some astonishment. The old man's face was shadowed by the collar of his cloak and the forecock of his hat, but Quier could see that the watery grey eyes were shrewd, despite one curious drooping lid with what looked like a random tattoo mark upon it. The deeply lined mouth curved into a smile, revealing by a slight asymmetry that one at least of the furrows seaming Sir Nathaniel's cheeks was due not to the passage of time, but a sword-cut.

'You are surprised, I believe.'

'Only that I supposed you had always been a naval officer, sir.'

'I was unemployed after the American War.' Drinkwater saw the young man frown. 'Not the recent affair,' he explained, referring to the war which had ended twenty-eight years earlier and during which Mr Quier might just have been born, 'the
first
American War.' He paused again, adding, 'in which the United States gained its independence.'

Quier's mouth hung open and when he realized his astonishment was as rude as it was obvious, he said hurriedly, 'I see, sir.'

'It was', Drinkwater agreed ruefully, 'a very long time ago.'

'Comin' alongside, sir,' the coxswain muttered, and, as the
Vestal
suddenly loomed huge and menacing, her stilled paddles ahead of them like the blades of an enormous water-wheel, Quier was obliged to attend to the business of hooking on to the falls.

Helped out of the boat as she swung in the falls and was griped in to the rail, and creaking with what he called 'his rheumaticks', Drinkwater retrieved his cane from Quier and acknowledged the salute of his fellow Elder Brother, Captain Richard Drew.

'Good to have you aboard, Sir Nathaniel, how was your journey?'

'Good to be aboard, Drew. I've been two days on the road from Taunton, damn it, so the ship's a welcome sight.'

'May I introduce Captain Poulter, the vessel's master...'

'Sir Nathaniel...'

'Captain Poulter, how d'ye do? I knew your father; served under him for a while after the first American War. I met him last in 'fourteen when we both served under the late king when he was, as he was pleased to term it, "Admiral of the British fleet".'

'It's good to have you aboard, sir.'

'I understand we're taking a look at the light at Hartland Point tomorrow if the weather serves?'

'That's right,' Drew interrupted, 'I've told Poulter we should be off the point at about half tide to gain the best conditions. There's a small breakwater at the foot of the cliffs. We shall land there.'

'All being well,' Drinkwater added, smiling, sensitive to Poulter's resentment at Drew's authoritarianism.

As if to confirm this perception, Poulter nodded. 'Quite so,' he said.

Quier arrived and informed Poulter that Sir Nathaniel's effects had been placed in the second state-cabin, whereupon the gathering on the deck broke up.

'Come and take a glass, Sir Nathaniel,' Drew invited, 'there's no need for
us
to keep the deck, eh?' and the Elder Brother led the way below chuckling.

It was now almost dark as Forester chivvied the hands about the deck, and the overcast covered the sky.

 

Drinkwater was floundering and he beat vainly for air as though his flailing arms could provide what he gasped for if he strove hard enough. He was curiously aware that he was drowning, yet equally convinced that he was dry, and that if he kept his arms moving he would survive. Yet the sensation filled him with terror. Somehow his subconscious mind registered the fact that this was not real, that the drowning was purely a vehicle for fear, and that it was only the fear which could touch him now.

As he grasped this and felt his heart hammer with increasing apprehension, he caught sight of something he dreaded with all the primeval fear of which his imagination was capable. She came upon him with ferocious speed, at first a faint glow in the distance, then with the velocity of recognition. Now she loomed over him and he felt the chill of her presence and her cold ethereal fist reaching for his lurching heart.

He would fain have averted his eyes, but her face, at once as beautiful as it was hideous, compelled his attention. And with her came the noise, a noise of roaring and clattering, of the scream of wind and of things — what things he did not know — tumbling in such confusion that it seemed the whole world had lost its moorings and only the ghastly white lady maintained her terrifying equilibrium, poised above him. Then she descended upon him like a gigantic succubus. He felt his body submit to her in a painful yet oddly delicious sensation while his soul fought for life.

Drinkwater woke in a muck sweat, the perspiration streaming from him and his heart thundering with such violence that he thought it must burst from his body. He imagined he had screamed out in his fright, yet around him all seemed quiet as he recollected his circumstances, making out the unfamiliar shapes of the state-cabin's furniture. As his heartbeat subsided, the last images of the dream faded. He could still conjure into his mind's eye the white lady, but she was receding, like the dying image of a sunlit window on the closed eyelid, identifiable only as an afterglow of perception.

For a moment he thought he had suffered a seizure, such had been the violence of his heartbeat, but it had only been a dream, and an old, almost familiar one. He tried to recall how many times he had had the recurring dream during his long life and remembered only that it had often served as a premonition.

The thought worried him more than the dream's inherent, terrifying images. They were so contradictory as to be easily dismissed, mere eldritch phantasms inhabiting the fearful hours of the lonely night when extraordinary, illogical contradictions possessed the power to frighten. But if it were premonition, what did that signify?

He lay back and felt his mortality. He was an old man. How many summers had he seen? Eighty? Yes, that was it, eighty summers and this his eighty-first...

He sighed. His heart, which had hammered with such insistence, would not beat forever and he had lived longer than so many of his friends. Poor Tregembo, for instance, whom he himself had dispatched with a pistol ball fired out of mercy to end the poor man's fearful suffering; and James Quilhampton, killed in a storm of shot as his cutter,
Kestrel,
had been raked in the Vikkenfiord ...

How he mourned Quilhampton. Better that Drinkwater himself should have died than poor James, so newly wed after so long a betrothal...

Drinkwater pulled himself together and shook off the last vestiges of the dream. He was no stranger to wakefulness in the night and knew its promptings were more substantial than a damned dream! Wearily he threw his legs clear of the bunk and fumbled for the jordan.

But even after relieving himself he could not sleep. The ship was rolling now, the tide having turned and the wind grown stronger. She hung in equilibrium, tethered to the sea-bed by her anchor and cable which would now be stretched out to the eastward, but with the strong wind in her top-hamper canting her round against its powerful stream.

'Some things', Drinkwater mused, thinking of
Vestal's
steam-powered sophistication, 'remain always the same.'

The rolling was persistently irritating. He was unused to the fixed mattress in the bunk and found the way his body-weight was pressed first on one side and then on the other a most disconcerting experience. He lay and thought fondly of his wife, knowing now, as he tossed irritably, that she had been correct in thinking him a fool for wanting to go back to sea.

'There is, my dear,' he could hear her saying, 'no fool quite like an old fool. Every dog has his day and surely you have had yours, but I suppose I shall let you have your way.'

It had been no good protesting that, as an Elder Brother of the Trinity House, it was his duty to ensure that the lighthouses, buoys and light-vessels around the coast were property maintained for the benefit of mariners.

'If you had never sent in that report about the deficiencies of the lighthouse on Helgoland they would never have heard of Nathaniel Drinkwater and never have elected you to their blessed fraternity,' Elizabeth had berated him. 'Either that or they wanted your knighthood to adorn their Court...'

'Thank you, Lady Drinkwater,' he had said, aware that her head, for all its customary good sense, had been turned a trifle by the title. God knew, it was little enough by way of compensation for all the loneliness she had suffered over the years, but perhaps, he thought, imagining her lying abed on the opposite side of the country listening to the rising gale, he should have spared her this last anxiety.

When at last he fell asleep it was almost dawn. He stirred briefly as the ship weighed her cable and her paddle-wheels thrashed the sea until they drove her along at nine knots. Then, acknowledging that the responsibility of command was not his, he rolled over and settled himself again. It was a supreme luxury to leave matters in the hands of another.

 

He woke fully an hour later as
Vestal
met a particularly heavy sea and shouldered it aside, her hull shuddering with the impact. A moment later the steward appeared, deferentially producing a coffee pot and the news that they had doubled Bull Point and that he might break his fast in the saloon in half an hour.

Drinkwater rose and shaved, bracing himself against the heave of the ship with the reflection that he had never, in three score years, proceeded directly to windward like this. He sipped the strong coffee as he dressed, cursing the need to perch spectacles on his nose in order to settle his neck-linen. Though never a dandy, Drinkwater had always tied his stock with a certain fastidiousness, and the one concession he made to fashion now that in his private life he rarely wore uniform, was a neat cravat. Satisfied, he pulled on a plain blue undress coat over the white pantaloons that he habitually wore, and walked through to the saloon.

Drew looked up and half rose from the table where he was hacking at cold mutton. 'Give you good day, sir.'

'And you, Richard...' The two men shook hands and Drinkwater joined Drew at the table.

'Did you sleep well?'

'Well enough,' Drinkwater replied. He was at least thirty-five years Drew's senior and had no wish to arouse the younger man's impatience with tedious references to a weakening bladder and those damned rheumaticks! Instead he would test the mettle of the man, for he knew Drew had made his name and a competent fortune in the West India trade before he was forty, and had been a member of the fraternity for some years. He was, therefore, Drinkwater's senior aboard
Vestal.
'What d'you make of the weather?'

BOOK: Ebb Tide
2.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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