Authors: Alaric Bond
Tags: #Age of Sail, #nautical fiction, #St Helena, #Sea Battles, #Historical Nautical Fiction, #War at Sea, #Napoleonic Wars, #historical fiction, #French Revolutionary War, #Nelsonian Era
The Torrid Zone
Published by Old Salt Press LLC, 2014.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
THE TORRID ZONE
First edition. May 21, 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Alaric Bond.
Written by Alaric Bond.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
he storm had already lasted three days and HMS
was starting to suffer. Timbers dried by time in the Mediterranean sun were brittle, some of her caulking had shrunk and many seams leaked, while much of the cordage supplied during the last, and far too brief, refit was reaching the end of its useful life. For some while the north east trade had been conveniently on her quarter, but the wind had backed with the bad weather. Now she was running before it, meeting the Atlantic rollers under heavily reefed topsails with a storm jib for balance, while both her commissioning pennant and the prized flag that distinguished her as carrying despatches streamed out stiff in the sodden air.
Forward of the mizzen mast, the quartermaster – a seasoned hand who had already seen and coped with just about everything the elements were capable of – was holding a steady course with only the occasional shout to the three men who assisted him whenever a significant turn of the double wheel was required. In front of them was the binnacle, where a dull green glow revealed the compass, while to one side stood the oilskin-clad figure of Lieutenant Thomas King, officer of the watch, who, as he cowered with his back arched against the driving rain, was probably the most miserable person on board.
If all had gone to plan he should be on land, in England, and at home. King considered this for a moment; he supposed it was right to call the country such, even though he had hardly spent more than a couple of months there in the last eight years. King was a confirmed seaman, and his true home was whatever combination of oak, pine and canvas currently supported him. But that was no reason to think differently about the country of his birth, and the recent arrival of a wife, along with their acquisition of two rented rooms in Stock Street, Southsea, made the feeling stronger. Now he yearned to be there, and they were not the usual cravings of a sailor missing rest and physical comfort; he had a far more specific need to be with Juliana once more.
The duty marine turned the glass he had been surreptitiously tapping for some while, before sounding the ship's bell with what was definitely a harder strike on the seventh and final stroke. The noise coincided with yet another flash of lightning some way off. Half an hour to go before they were due to be relieved and King could seek the dubious comforts of a crowded gunroom. It was a place certain to be both stuffy and stale with the smell of closely packed humanity, while the warm air, uncomfortably oppressive even on an open deck, would be thick with damp, and positively guarantee a poor night's sleep. But the break would be a change at least and, when Cahill finally appeared to set the new watch, he was a welcome sight.
Below it was very much as he had expected, even if there was only one man that sat at the long dining table. King passed his oilskins to a steward and brushed back his damp hair as he approached. Fraiser, the elderly sailing master, looked up from his book, and nodded towards the chair opposite.
“You'll be needing something hot inside you,” he informed King in a gruff tone that properly disguised the affection he held for the younger man, an affection that had built up over the many years they had sailed together.
“No, sleep is all I need,” King replied, righting himself automatically as the ship gave a deeper lurch to larboard.
“Sit down, laddie,” the older man commanded; to him it was obvious that rest alone would not be enough. “At least let yourself dry a wee bit before you turns in.”
King slumped into the chair and accepted the mug of coffee that the Scotsman had poured, watching approvingly as it was sweetened with an overdose of sugar. The room was unusually empty, although sounds from sleeping bodies could still be heard. Rows of tiny cabins lined each side, and their thin walls held few secrets.
“How long will it last?” King asked, when he had taken several sips of his drink and the liquid was starting to take effect.
“The storm?” Fraiser asked. “Ach, all should be blown out by daybreak, but I wouldn't swear that it won't return.” He closed his book and pushed it to one side. “At this latitude and time of year it is to be expected. Once we are passed the equator things should improve, but it will be a spell afore the clement weather truly sets in.”
“They say St Helena is fair most of the year about.” Powered by the ship's motion, the pewter pot was making slow but steady progress towards the side of the table. King caught hold of the handle and tipped a little more coffee into his mug, before replacing it safely within the confines of a rope fiddle.
“They do,” Fraiser agreed. “Though the only time I was there it also rained cats and dogs on occasion. You have not been afore?”
King shook his head as he placed the mug down. “No. I was heading there back in 'ninety five when we met with a French battle squadron, and that rather changed our plans.”
Fraiser knew the story well enough, but feigned a look of interest. Despite the storm and their overcrowded conditions, the dark and empty room was a relatively peaceful place, and the old Scot hoped King might feel inclined to talk further. But the lad would not be drawn and, after nothing more was forthcoming, Fraiser tried again.
“It's nought but a speck on the ocean,” he said. “But there are few mariners who have not visited at some time and many continue to do so regular enough to call it home.”
Home: there was that word again: odd how it both charmed and grated. King looked up and into the eyes of the elderly warrant officer. Had Fraiser used it specifically? And why was he watching him now, as if he was expecting something of great moment or significance? The young man picked up his mug once more and actually considered broaching the subject of Juliana, and their problems. King's small but close circle of friends were all shipmates, and it was no coincidence that every one was actually aboard
. But only the sailing master was both present, and seemed ready to share a confidence. For a fleeting second the idea even appealed, before being firmly rejected. Fraiser was a fine man but King told himself he had more than sufficient maturity to live his life without assistance.
“It will only be a short trip, laddie,” Fraiser said as if in response, although King had not spoken. “We should be there in no time and likely back in Portsmouth afore you knows it.”
King smiled at the sailing master's optimism. “Aye,” he agreed. “But we should be there now; I had all but promised.” He actually opened his mouth to continue, only to find himself totally unable to explain the situation. Fraiser was a lifelong bachelor, and it was hard to express deep feelings to a person who had probably never missed anyone beyond his immediate family. The old man nodded, understanding more than King could ever have imagined.
was diverted, every member of her crew had been disappointed. It was the second time such a thing had happened; the third if their previously interrupted refit was included. Following a hurried deployment to the Mediterranean, what was customarily known as the Blackstrap Station, all had been expecting to be sent back to their home port to complete repairs. Instead the ship followed their previous commander-in-chief to the Channel Fleet, where they spent the next nine months scraping the French coast with the inshore squadron. Only then did a parsimonious Admiralty decide that
really had waited long enough, and she was finally sent for the much needed maintenance.
It was no great length of time since they had first left Portsmouth, but her repairs after Warren's action had not been exhaustive, and certain areas were in desperate need of further attention. Her crew also required care of one sort or another; while with what was colloquially known as the Channel Gropers, every man on board had been aware that England, along with her many comforts, lay barely over the horizon. The knowledge had caused more than a few sour faces and sharp answers: it was clear that all were as tired as their ship, and both officers and men drew a sigh of relief when
was finally able to set her prow for home.
They even made it as far as Spithead, and had their bower firmly planted in the Solent mud when the captain received news from the port admiral that she was not to be paid off. More, it appeared, would be required of them and he was to take her back to sea almost immediately. Of course Banks had been generously compensated; half a million in East India Company gold was now safely stowed below; an amount which, when safely delivered, would earn him a tidy sum in freight money. But for the rest there was no consolation; they would have nothing other than the knowledge that their planned leave was to be postponed for what was likely to be at least six months. The news spread through the tightly packed ship like the plague, then, less than three weeks later,
was heading south for what indeed was an island hardly bigger than a fly speck on the map.
To make matters worse, the reason for their delay was not a short cruise where the capture of a few fat merchants would earn them prize money. They were merely conveying passengers and had taken on board St Helena's replacement governor, together with his wife, two personal servants and a tribe of petty officials. These had consumed much of the available officer accommodation and seemed eager to do similar to any private gunroom stores. Consequently, rather than being with his wife and in the seclusion of their modest lodgings, King was sharing an even smaller space with the first lieutenant. He gave an ironic shrug, and drained his mug.
“If you've a problem,” Fraiser said softly, “it may help to share it.”
“Belike,” King replied without conviction, before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Or perhaps it is better to let things lay – they can do nought but improve.”
“The captain gave permission for Juliana to come aboard, did he not?” Fraiser chanced, after considering him for a moment.
King lowered his eyes. “He did. But then it would have been hard to have done otherwise when his own wife had also been taken on. And of course Mrs Manning has been with us for much of the commission.”
That was true. Due mainly to Lord St. Vincent's legendary disapproval of women sailing in the sole capacity of a spouse,
s people had been almost exclusively male. The exception was Kate Manning, the wife of their surgeon. She was with them in
, Captain Banks' previous ship, which had also carried many of
's men and nearly every officer. Her abilities then, both as a competent medical assistant and temporary purser, made her a popular and important member of the crew, although latterly there was another reason why it was important that she stayed on board. But when
embarked civilians for their current mission, two of them turned out to be female, and then it seemed only natural that Banks should bring his own wife as well. Sailing, as they were, under Admiralty orders meant that no permission was needed from any Commander-in-Chief; besides all the officers had attended the captain's wedding and were well aware that the couple had barely spent more than a few days together since.
“And did Juliana not care to come?” Fraiser asked, artfully bringing the younger man back to the question he would so much rather have avoided. “I would have thought a sea trip to be the certain cure for any unpleasantness ashore.”
“She is not suffering any unpleasantness,” King replied firmly. “At least none that cannot be dealt with. Many see the Dutch as our allies rather than the enemy, and Juliana herself seems anything but unpopular,” he added enigmatically.