Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 3 : Loading Powder

Bishop called his officers into his cabin. One of the officers needed to remain on watch, and since Thorton was in mal odeur with the captain, he was the unlucky man. He paced the deck with his hands clasped behind his back and bent all his mental powers to trying to guess what was going on in the captain's cabin, but beyond the most general of outlines, he couldn't. 

Bishop was explaining, "Gentlemen. This evening we will receive on board His Excellency, Achmed bin Mamoud, envoy from the Sallee Republic to England and his servant. His servant will be housed with the midshipmen. Mr. Achmed will occupy the third cabin. Has Thorton vacated it?" 

Perry replied, "Aye, sir."

Bishop raised his eyebrows and remarked sarcastically, "Strange, I was sure you were the number two lieutenant, Mr. Perry. Mr. Forsythe, answer!"

Forsythe jumped. "Aye aye, sir, he has."

Bishop scowled at Perry. "Do not think that just because there is only a few week's difference in your commission dates that you can jump precedence like that, Mr. Perry."

"No, sir, I'm sorry, sir. But Thorton's bunking with me, so I knew he'd moved his things, sir."

 "Did I ask you a question, mister?"

"No, sir." Perry shut up, his cheeks burning.

Forsythe was pale, dreading to be called upon with a question for which he had no answer. He was not a quick-witted man. He stood stiffly at attention, waiting for the next blow to fall, certain that he would feel the axe in his turn as keenly as Perry and Thorton had.

"As I was saying. They will come aboard tonight. By no word or deed are they to obtain the slightest inkling that the condition of this ship is in any way out of the ordinary."

"Aye aye, sir," Forsythe responded. He was not aware that there was anything out of the ordinary about the vessel himself, and he shot a beseeching glance at Perry. Perry was pretty sure Forsythe was the only one expected to reply to that and kept silent. 

"Now then, where was I?" Nobody answered him. He collected his thoughts. "Ah yes. The Mohammedan is coming aboard this evening. We are to convey him to France and wait on him while he confers with the French officials. We are to convey him to any port on the Atlantic coast of France he wishes to visit and deposit him wherever on that coast he directs. We are to look into the French ports and give a report of their naval readiness. Likewise, we are to keep a sharp eye out for Spanish traffic and report on it as well."

Their eyes were fixed on him as they ate up his words like hungry men. Since the peace between England and France there had been no cause to go nosing about French ports, but the Admiralty was not so ready to trust the temper of the French and wanted information. Their pulses beat more quickly.

The captain continued, "I understand that you each speak fluent French and that Mr. Thorton speaks French and Spanish as well. Is that correct?"

The officers chorused, "Aye aye, sir." If some of them thought their command of French a bit weak they dared not admit it. Under ordinary circumstances there would be no need to have so many men aboard who spoke French; to arrange things thus bespoke spy missions and secret errands ashore. Cloak and dagger stuff. Perry was looking forward to it with relish. It was fortunate Forsythe did not grasp the significance of the arrangements; if he had he would have been petrified. Not that he was lacking in physical courage, but he was sorely lacking in initiative and the ability to think on his feet, both which would be required for such reconnoitering. Perry, on the other hand, with his charm and good looks, was the perfect man for the job.

"We are going to receive a contingent of hands from the vessels in harbor. The Indomitable, Intrepid, and the tenders are all contributing. Tonight we will press a crew. Indomitable and Intrepid will help. We get first pick of the press, and we sail as soon as we have them on board and read in. Mr. Forsythe, you'll remain here with me. Mr. Perry, you'll lead the press gang. Take Midshipmen Chambers and . . . one other." He did not recollect the names of the midshipmen. "Do not convey anymore than absolutely necessary to Mr. Thorton—he has a loose tongue. We don't want them to fly before we catch them. The powder and shot will be coming alongside this afternoon. Mr. Forsythe, whom do you want to handle the powder and the new recruits?"

Forsythe was relieved that he had escaped unscathed so far, and he was glad not to be part of the press gang, but the latest question was burning him. He glanced at Perry, then at Bishop. His voice was tremulous as he said, "I think Mr. Perry ought to take the new recruits on board. He has a knack for it. Mr. Thorton can take the powder." His voice rose in a question mark as he sought desperately to see if his decision met his superior's approval.

Bishop stared at him and Forsythe blanched. "If it pleases you, sir."

"Don't you dare forget 'sir' again, young man. I will not tolerate insubordination on my ship."

"Aye aye, sir!" Forsythe squeaked.

Bishop turned his eye on Perry. "So you have a knack with recruits, do you?"

Perry was now on the fire. To say yes would sound boastful, to say no would call Forsythe's judgment into doubt. To say too much would earn another rebuke. "Since we were short handed, Mr. Forsythe directed me to recruit and I obtained twenty-eight hands, sir."

Bishop's eyebrows went up. "Twenty-eight, you say? Good hands?" 

"Twelve landsmen and sixteen seamen, sir." 

Bishop grunted. After a moment of consideration, he said grudgingly, "That was well done, Mr. Perry."

"Thank you, sir." He kept his expression blank and his tone bland. 

The captain fixed his eyes upon Forsythe again. "Loading powder is a dangerous business. Why did you pick Thorton for the duty?"

Perry longed to interject a good word for his friend but dared not try it. Forsythe was sweating. "Well sir, I thought Mr. Perry would do a better job with the men, so that left Thorton for the powder, sir. I'll change it if you think I should, sir." There were entirely too many 'sirs' in that statement, but Bishop accepted it as his due.

"And why did you not select yourself for this highly responsible duty?"

Forsythe was holed below the waterline and in danger of sinking. He racked his brains and came up with the only possible answer that would satisfy Bishop. "I thought it best to keep myself in readiness for whatever command you might give me, sir." 

"To load powder requires a very exact understanding of load and safety, Mr. Forsythe. Do you think Mr. Thorton up to it? He seems a careless fellow."

Perry made a great effort to restrain himself. He had to bite his lips.

Forsythe saw his reaction and feared the worst. "Perhaps Mr. Perry knows something about Mr. Thorton that I don't, sir."

"Well, what is it, man?"

Perry wanted to burst out with a great many things, but he schooled himself to the brevity and dignity that Bishop seemed to expect. "I have served with Mr. Thorton, sir. He has a good head for figures and is scrupulous about his duties. I believe he is an excellent choice to load the powder, if it pleases you, sir."

"I didn't ask your opinion, Mr. Perry. I deal in facts. I will form my own opinion about the man and it is not off to a good start."

"Aye aye, sir." There was only so much cover Perry could give to Thorton without sinking himself.

Bishop was musing. "A head for figures and two languages. He must be proud of his intellect." 

Perry wanted to argue that Thorton was anything but proud but dared not. He resorted to guile. "Perhaps Mr. Thorton should be summoned and questioned regarding his capabilities directly, sir."

Bishop fixed a glare on Perry and he knew he had ventured too much. He cultivated a wooden face. Bishop ignored his advice. "Very well. Thorton shall supervise the powder and I shall supervise Thorton. Call me when the powder comes along side. Dismissed."

"Aye aye, sir." With palpable relief they fled his presence.

Perry sought out Thorton to update him on all that had transpired as tersely as he could. He longed to tell him more, but was under orders not to. "I have more to tell you, but I can't because the captain thinks you're a blabbermouth. He's going to watch you with the powder, so watch yourself. Make sure you get a good nap, too. We've got business tonight."

Thorton's jaw dropped. "A blabbermouth? Me?" Even Thorton thought he was not a loquacious man; one of the reasons he resisted strong drink was for fear it would loosen his tongue.

Perry spread his hands. "He makes large judgments from small details." 

"A boat!" a hand sang out.

Perry looked over the side. "There's the first of the new crew coming up. I've got to get them." He hurried away.

Then another call from the other side. "Powder boat coming along side!" The word was passed to the great cabin. 

"Captain on deck!" 

Thorton hastened to present himself. He saluted smartly and said absolutely nothing.

"Mr. Thorton. If you were to have the honor of bringing the powder on board, how would you do it?"

"I'd order MacDonald to select the hands and see that they were barefoot and beltless, not so much as a brass button on them, sir. And I'd not raise more than sixteen barrels of powder at a time because the winch line is old, sir."

"If it is old, why hasn't it been replaced, Mr. Thorton?"

"Shall I query the boatswain, sir?" It was the boatswain's duty to make sure everything about the ship was in good repair. 

"I'll ask him myself. Make a note of it."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Carry on with raising the powder, Mr. Thorton." 

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton stepped forward and gave his orders with a minimum of words. An error would blow them all sky high, so MacDonald selected sound men who removed their shoes and tightened their trouser strings. Thorton inspected them before they began to work, checking their buttons and making them turn out their pockets. Knives and coins and other metal objects were confiscated and set aside. "Swabs ready, MacDonald?"

"Aye aye, sir." 

Swabs and buckets of seawater stood by to extinguish any stray sparks and avert a conflagration.

"Lower the net handsomely, if you please." He leaned over the side. "You men. Sixteen barrels at a time. No more." 

The men in the lighter looked up and called, "Aye aye, sir."

The first load of powder was swayed up and placed in the hold without incident. Thorton said not a word except to give and acknowledge orders. The second and the third loads were hoisted in. Bishop continued watching, hands behind his back. To get her five tons of powder and accompanying shot, cartridges, and other items, plus the shot for the swivels and muskets, required seven loads. At last it was done, and Thorton said, "Swab the decks, MacDonald." 

The swabs were brought out to wash down the decks to make certain any stray grains of gunpowder were doused and swept away. Thorton went down to the hold to inspect the stowage, found it satisfactory, and climbed back on deck. He approached the captain, saluted, and reported, "Powder stowed, sir." 

"Very well, Mr. Thorton. Carry on."

"Thank you, sir." 

Thorton thought he'd done a good job of it and had hoped for some sign that his work had met the captain's approval, but it wasn't coming. He would have surely heard about it if something were amiss. He resigned himself. His last captain had been chary of compliments as well. It was much too soon for Bishop to pamper his junior officers with a kind word. 

Thorton had something else on his mind. He hardly dared to broach it but finally screwed up his courage and asked, "Do you have any orders regarding gunnery practice, sir?"

Bishop gave him a freezing look. "Mr. Perry will see to it."

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton's face burned red even as it froze into a mask of no expression.

"That will be all, Mr. Thorton."

Thorton saluted and fled.

1 comment:

  1. Oy. Things are still awkward with the captain, I see. Perry seems the most adept at handling the man thus far.