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Authors: Naomi J. Williams

Landfalls

BOOK: Landfalls
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In memory of my grandmother Kimi Kawabata, who also loved maps

 

A good Land fall is when we fall just with our reckoning, if otherwise a bad Land fall.

—Captain John Smith,
A Sea Grammar
(1627)

Exultation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea,

Past the houses—past the headlands—

Into deep Eternity—

Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

—Emily Dickinson

A man finds his shipwrecks,

tells himself the necessary stories.

—Stephen Dunn, “Odysseus's Secret,”
Different Hours

 

PROLOGUE: GALLEY STOVES

Port of Brest, Spring 1785

No one knew what to make of the new galley stoves when they arrived. There were two—one for each ship—and they came by boat, first for the
Boussole
and then for the
Astrolabe
, disassembled into their cumbersome components and accompanied by a foul-mouthed shipyard locksmith charged with installing them.

“What is this?” the men asked as they watched the boats approach and again as they hauled the heavy iron pieces on board and laid them out on their decks.

The men had other questions too, questions that had gone unanswered:
Where is this expedition going? For what purpose? And for how long?
But this time, the captain of the
Boussole
, Jean-Fran
ç
ois de Galaup de Lap
é
rouse, called down from the quarterdeck: “It's an English galley stove. A gift from the minister of marine.” He laughed while the men grumbled about bringing English contrivances aboard, then instructed the head carpenter to keep an eye on the installation. “Make sure that locksmith doesn't damage my ship,” he said.

The captain of the
Astrolabe
, Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle, didn't laugh. He clambered down from the quarterdeck, signaled wordlessly to his own head carpenter to join him, and followed the locksmith and the stove parts as they made their laborious way below. He endured the locksmith's epithet-laced bungling for two hours before dismissing the man and overseeing the rest of the installation himself.

Only a few months earlier, the
Boussole
and the
Astrolabe
had been humble naval storeships moving lumber or cordage from one known port on the Atlantic to another. Now they had been assigned to the mysterious expedition, reclassed as frigates, and given new, more respectable names. But they still had a storeship's dimensions, and the English stoves, no doubt designed for ships of the line, barely fit. On both vessels, men swore as they bashed toes and knees and foreheads into iron legs and doors and knobs.

They wanted to blame the locksmith, but the head carpenter on the
Astrolabe
reminded his shipmates that the blame lay with the minister of marine, who, from the comfort and opulence of the H
ô
tel de La Marine in Paris, had purchased two stoves he'd never laid eyes on for two ships he'd also never laid eyes on. This satisfied some of the men, who preferred blaming a distant aristocrat to a local man, and disappointed others, who'd looked forward to knocking the locksmith about the next time they had shore leave.

The head carpenter on the
Boussole
, an analytical man, added that he believed the stoves to be evidence of the expedition's importance. “The farther away the man making the decisions,” he said, “the grander the mission.” This pleased some of his shipmates, who imagined a long campaign that involved adventure, promotion, and money—but worried others, who imagined all those things too but preferred expeditions that brought them safely home after not too long away.

“Maybe it's war again,” one of the men suggested.

“With who?” a shipmate asked.

“Does it matter?”

“We're not warships.”

“Every ship in the Royale is a warship in time of war.”

“But we're not
in
time of war.”

“Maybe we're about to be, is what I'm saying.”

Monsieur de Lap
é
rouse happened to overhear this exchange and stopped before the men, whose names he couldn't recall. Everyone on board was new to the ship, including him. “No one's going to war,” he said. “What made you say that?”

The assembled men looked at one another, then back at their captain, then back at one another, till one of them said, “On account of the minister's stoves, sir.”

“The
stoves
?” the captain said. “Do you think hostile Englishmen might be hidden inside, ready to jump out in the night to take over our ships?”

“No, sir,” they replied. Only one crew member, a petty officer who'd read the
Aeneid
as a boy, dared chuckle at the captain's reference.

As for the stoves themselves, they performed well—
quite
well—when only one person at a time used them. But when Monsieur de Lap
é
rouse ordered a test in which every possible use of the stove was performed simultaneously, the results were deplorable. Add to the ship's cook the officers' cook and the captain's cook and the ship's baker and the expedition's chemist, and bread emerged from the oven burned on top and uncooked in the middle, pots boiled over or not at all, the alembic installed to desalinate seawater consumed far too much wood for the dribbles of fresh water it produced, and the chemist, rather belatedly, said he thought it quite lucky the galleys hadn't caught fire.

Monsieur de Lap
é
rouse made light of the problem before the men, calling their new stove the “English baron.” “It's fat, eats more than it should, and sits around all day smoking,” he quipped. But urgent-looking missives carried by harried-looking messengers came and went from his cabin, suggesting that remote—and hence, important—discussions were taking place.

Meanwhile, on the
Astrolabe
, Monsieur de Langle had his carpenters remove their equally troublesome stove and replace it with a smaller traditional French stove. He then modified it himself to fit a new distilling device designed in Paris by Monsieur de Lavoisier, the famous chemist, and proposed redoing the test. He took the precaution of moving the
Astrolabe
to a less populated part of the harbor. (“In case we explode,” one waggish crewman explained to Langle's cook, a thin, anxious individual who flinched thereafter at every sound from the galley stove.) The captain, undaunted, ordered up a large pot of peas, two loaves of fresh bread, a partridge for a captain's dinner, a pitcher of distilled seawater, and, for good measure, the heating up of some liquid-filled flasks as if for a science experiment.

Midafternoon, a skiff from the
Astrolabe
pulled up alongside the
Boussole
, where Lap
é
rouse and his men awaited the results. “Well?” the captain demanded when one of Langle's lieutenants climbed aboard. The young officer presented a package that contained a still-steaming loaf of bread and a note.
Let us inform the minister that his stoves may be suited to an English sailor's lifestyle, but not to a Frenchman's
, it said.

“How do you know what it said?” one of the
Astrolabe
's carpenters demanded of the assistant carpenter from the
Boussole
when he related this part of the story. “You can't read.”

“Because the commander read the note out loud and we all laughed, he loudest of all,” the young man replied. “And I
can
read, I'll have you know.”

It was the following night, and they were at a watering hole in Brest favored by seamen. With Monsieur de Langle's design successfully implemented on both ships, the two captains had given their carpenters the evening off.

“So who says your Monsieur de Lap
é
rouse is the expedition's commander?” another man from the
Astrolabe
retorted.

BOOK: Landfalls
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