Monday, July 13, 2009
Chapter 9 : The Spanish Galley
The Spanish galley held her position as best she could, but continued to drift farther and farther to leeward. The Ajax backed sails, lost way, and stalled. The Spanish captain studied their actions and figured out their intention. The galley rowed harder and pulled ahead. This enabled them to resist leeway a bit, but they dared not turn head to wind because that would give them a beam sea. They compromised between the two, pitching and creaking wildly with their free men pumping like madmen. The slaves threw themselves on the oars and rowed for their lives. The Ajax came ponderously across the galley's stern then up along her starboard. As they cut so close across her stern they could read her name: San Bartolomeo. With the Ajax for a shield against the wind the Saint Bart turned more directly into the waves. She backed oars and tried to match the frigate.
"Brace those yards hard around!" Perry shouted.
They creaked and turned as far as they would go, the Ajax heeling hard to larboard. It was a poor position that they would not have chosen on their own, but it gave shelter to the galley. The galley pitched and plowed her head under. Waves of water cascaded along her deck, nearly drowning the slaves in their chains. She struggled up again and water poured from her concave deck. A bridge ran down her middle above the oar banks but nobody dared traverse it. Her two boatswains with their whips were clinging to the antennas in their davits. The gale blew on.
Thorton looked down from the quarterdeck to marvel at the tenacity of the frail craft full of hundreds of lives. He counted fifty oars with four slaves each. Some of the seats were empty; she did not have her full complement of miserable souls. The action of wind and waves served to bring the two vessels together again.
"Prepare grappling hooks!" Perry shouted.
Bishop whirled on him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to lash her to our side. Look how she founders!"
"She'll take us down with her!"
"Then we must save her crew! We can't send boats in this sea. Grappling is the only way!"
Bishop had no experience with galleys. Until he was staring down into her waist he had no inkling how many men were in her—twice as many as his frigate. The galley was as long as the frigate and much narrower and shallower; it hardly seemed that she could hold so many souls. His men were safely sheltered in the bowels of the hull except such crew as were necessary to work the sails, but for the galley, nearly two hundred slaves were exposed on deck. And exposed they were, for they were chained naked to the oars. Another two hundred freemen—sailors, marines, gunners, and officers, occupied her decks.
"We don't have room for them!"
"Then let her ride lashed to our side to keep her from sinking!"
Bishop wavered. Non-entity that he was, he was not ruthless enough to condemn four hundred men to their deaths. "Make it so!"
"Aye aye, sir! Stand by with grappling hooks! Make fast!"
Bishop looked around for Forsythe, but Forsythe was bending over the taffrail puking out his guts. Perry was on watch. Neither of them spoke Spanish. "Thorton! Take a party and board her. See what you can do to make her right."
"Aye aye, sir! MacDonald and two hands! Maynard!"
The lad was there in his foul weather gear, bright and curious, his blue eyes dancing with excitement. He would not panic in a pinch and was clever and brave enough to make himself useful. Boy that he was, he wanted to go aboard a foundering galley.
As the grapples were set, they swung their legs over the side and met the Spanish marines scrambling up. The Spanish officers shouted, "Abandon ship! All hands into the English frigate!"
Thorton understood the Spanish and paused on the gunwale. "Sir, they're abandoning ship!"
Bishop swore about cowardly Spanish who couldn't stand a gale, then said, "Carry on, Mr. Thorton."
Thorton reached the deck of the galley and scrambled up the stairs to the poop. The Spanish captain was there in his cloak and tricorn. The ostrich feathers of the hat and everything else were thoroughly drenched and downbeaten. Thorton saluted and spoke urgent Spanish to him.
"Lt. Thorton of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax at your service! We rescue you, sir!" He had to shout be be heard in the wind. The rigging thrummed and howled and the waves crashed and beat. A great wave broke over the larboard and drenched the slaves in the waist.
The Spanish captain returned his salute. "Captain Alonso Renaldo y Villanueva of His Most Catholic Majesty Carlos' galley San Bartolomeo. Thank you very much. I will join you as soon as my men are safe."
Thorton turned to watch the Ajax's men running forward and aft to inspect and some go below. Then he realized something terrible: no one was moving to release the slaves' chains. "Release the slaves, sir!"
The Spanish captain made no move. "They are criminals condemned to die in the galleys."
The two vessels heeled together, banging and scraping violently. One grappling hook snapped free. The slaves pulled frantically but helplessly at their chains. Others raised their hands and clamored to the rescuers in Spanish, French, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Dutch, Hebrew, and African tongues. One voice bellowed above it all, "I am an Englishman! For the love of God, save me!"
Thorton searched but could not pick out one naked brown and sunburnt body from another. "I heard English! I can't leave an Englishman on board. For God's sake man! Release the prisoners!"
The Spanish captain remained like stone. He could not leave the poop deck as long as Thorton was there. His own pride, to say nothing of naval tradition, required the captain not to abandon his post until all other hands had been saved. Galleyslaves didn't count; they were dead to the laws of Spain and he could dispose of them as he pleased.
MacDonald ran up. "Her seams have opened in the bow. She's head down and filling, sir." Thorton knew what awful fate that portended: the rushing power of the waves would peel the planks away from the ribs to leave gaping holes where the water poured in. The San Bartolomeo was doomed.
Thorton was desperate. "The keys!" he screamed.
The Spanish captain was sweating. Thorton wouldn't leave until he had the keys, and the Spanish captain couldn't save his skin until the Englishman had left his poop. Finally the man put his hand into his pocket and drew out a key ring.
"They'll mutiny!" he shouted at Thorton, but Thorton didn't wait. He ran down to the waist. The Spanish captain followed him, muttering about mad dogs and Englishmen. Renaldo checked to see that no more of his own free men were aboard the vessel, then went up the side of the frigate and left the Englishmen and slaves aboard.
The slaves were chained by fours with a lock securing each chain to a staple that was in turn secured to an iron band that went round the bridge-posts. It could not be pulled free. The iron bands were welded together. Only by unlocking the lock could the slaves be freed. Thorton hurriedly put the key into the first lock on the port side. Waves kept coming over and crashing down, drenching him in spite of the oilskin. The lock opened and he left it to crawl to the next one. The slaves tore loose the lock and ran the chain through their manacles. All eyes were on Thorton. They called him to hurry in half a dozen tongues.
"Thorton! Belay that!" Bishop bellowed down at him.
Thorton stood up and shouted, "There are Englishmen in chains!"
His shout caused consternation and anger on the frigate's deck. The word was swiftly passed, and angry English eyes turned on the Spanish. The galley captain did not speak English, but he saw the mood well enough and stood up haughtily, hand to his sword. He barked orders and his marines formed a defensive formation.
The slaves were not willing to wait for the debate to be settled. Suddenly the keys were wrenched from Thorton's hand and a black-haired slave shoved the key in the lock to free himself. More hands reached to try and take the key away from him and a babel arose as each demanded the key to freedom.
"I need you here!" Bishop screamed at him, but Thorton couldn't hear him over the tumult.
Filthy hands were grabbing at his bestockinged legs as if he could magically produce a bushel of keys from out of his pocket. The galley pitched and rolled and water cascaded in sheets across her bridge. Thorton fell. The slaves knew they were being abandoned. They had been desperate before but now they were wild. Those closest to the frigate could reach out and touch her. They held up beseeching hands and begged for rescue. Suddenly, somewhere near the mid-deck, a tall figure rose. He was a Turk with dreadlocks of matted hair down past his shoulders and a filthy beard to match. Naturally swarthy, the sun had turned him to mahogany then dried him up. He was a tall, cadaverous man of whom nothing was left but sinews and skeleton. His voice boomed out in excellent Spanish, "Silence! Hold your positions!"
Many slaves turned to look at him. Thorton scrambled to his feet. Maynard, although only a boy, was laying about with a belaying pin to break through the slaves that were assailing the bridge to come to his defense. The slave with the key turned it frantically in the lock, then another snatched it from him. The slaves who could reach were grabbing and fighting each other for the key.
The Turk roared out, "Belay that! Number Three Bench! Number Four Bench! No fighting or I'll whip you myself! Order men, order! Number One Bench! Get below and inspect!"
Thorton shouted at the Turk, "She split her bow seams! We must abandon ship!"
The Turk shouted, "Number One Bench! Belay that! If you love your lives, seal the forward bulkhead!"
The four freed slaves leaped for the hatch. Number Two Bench was free and Number Three running their chains out. Number Four Bench was unlocking. The slaves fell silent, waiting tensely for their turns and orders.
The Turk boomed out again, "Number Two Bench! Number Three Bench! Man the pumps!"
Aboard the frigate, Bishop was bellowing in French at his belligerent guests, "Surrender! Lay down your arms!" Several of the Spaniards spoke French and held a hurried consultation with their captain.
"Cut loose the galley! Let it sink!" the Spanish captain demanded. His officer translated for him.
There were Englishmen aboard, both the crew Bishop had sent over and an unknown number of English slaves. Bishop hesitated, torn as always when forced to choose among ugly options. But his duty was to his own ship. The slaves were nothing. Condemned criminals. Nothing to concern himself about.
"Mr. Thorton! Return!"
Thorton heard and called, "Aye aye, sir!" The wind tore his words away, but his salute was plain.
He shouted to his men, "Get back to the frigate! Maynard, make 'em go!"
One of his men scrambled up the side, but the two ships were tossing and bucking and not in cadence with one another. He fell between the ships and though some slaves reached over to try and help him, they had to jerk back when the two hulls slammed together. The man was crushed.
"Mind your step!" Thorton bellowed.
MacDonald, the English boatswain, was still below and not heard the orders; he had a man with him. Thorton ran to the hatch, dropped to his knees by the coaming, and shouted down into the darkness, "Ajax! Return! Ajax, return!"
The galley's head was well down even as her pumps started to work. She was lashed stem to stem and stern to stern with the frigate, and her head going down was pulling the bow of the Ajax down with her. The Ajax lolled further onto her side, twisting before the combined pressures of wind and waves. So the broach began.
Bishop bellowed, "Cut loose the galley! Mr. Thorton! Save yourselves!"
MacDonald scrambled out of the hold. The ruddy-faced Scot turned to give a hand to the man behind him while English axes hacked away the lines holding the bows together. The Ajax's bow came up immediately, but jerked short as the ropes amidships still held. The axemen ran to them and began hacking.
"Run for the ship!" Thorton barked.
The second man leaped and grabbed the channels on the Ajax. Willing hands helped to pull him to the Ajax's deck.
"Mr. Maynard, get aboard!"
The midship lines were cut as Maynard ran to the side. The two ships bounced together one more time, then parted. He did not make the jump. Maybe his nerve failed him, or maybe it was good sense that told him not to try jumping between two behemoths as they writhed in their salty beds. The last line parted. Thorton, MacDonald, and Maynard were stranded aboard a sinking galley.
The tall Turk shouted orders, first in Spanish, then in Arabic. "Out all oars!" The galley plunged deep and the waves washed across her. "Head to waves! Back starboard oars!"
More men were free from their chains and went to the pumps.
"Key to Number Twelve Bench starboard side!" the Turk roared. There was a momentary hesitation, then the key was passed across. "You and you, take the first bench port side!" Since the key had been handed from back to front on the larboard side, that side was developing many empty benches and the galley could not pull evenly. The Turk was redistributing the men to get her in line.
Thorton awoke from his frightful paralysis. "MacDonald! Maynard! The tiller! Come with me!" The three Englishmen ran up to the poop.
The Spanish had switched out the wooden tiller and replaced it with an iron one when the weather turned foul. It was an iron club a fathom long thrashing back and forth across the poop. Maynard saw it, and perhaps to make up for his hesitation in leaping for the frigate, sprang for it. It smacked him in the middle and he hung on. The iron rod swept him off his feet, but his weight slowed its gyration. MacDonald sprang and grabbed it from the other side and Thorton came on. With the three of them on it they made it mind.
"Are you hurt, Maynard?" Thorton shouted over the storm.
"No, sir!" the boy shouted back, although he'd taken a powerful thump to the stomach.
The rudder bit. The Turk felt the change in the vessel's behavior and shouted new orders. Wave after wave plowed over the sunken bow.
A freed slave ran up to the poop. He saluted and said in perfectly good English, "If you please sir, Cap'n Tangle says to shift weight aft." He was tawny, skinny, and naked like all the slaves. His red hair was thin, but he had an excessive amount of beard as if to make up for the loss on top.
"Who the hell are you?" Thorton demanded. He also wondered who 'Captain Tangle' was, but one thing at a time.
The man braced his legs to the pitching deck. "Joshua Foster, gunner's mate from the old King Henry, sir."
"Tell Tangle to send me a pair of helmsmen so that I may send the boatswain down to make weight aft."
"Aye aye, sir."
A minute later a pair of men were scrambling to the poop. They knew what to do. MacDonald and Maynard yielded the tiller to them. MacDonald ran down the steps and found a gang of men coming up to meet him. He had no Spanish, so barked in execrable French, "Down, you sons of bitches! Move those cannons aft!"
All of the guns had been safely stowed below when the weather started. The larger guns weighed three thousand pounds. They were wrapped in netting and lashed to keep them from rolling. The boatswain's gang lashed tackles and with the benefit of pulleys and eight stout backs hauled them aft and secured them. It was slow work. Meanwhile, up on deck, the Turk, still in his chains, was giving more orders. He had a petty officer in charge of the pumps who was rotating hands every few minutes. They were pumping like mad and no man could sustain the pace more than a five minutes at a time. New hands jumped in and grabbed the moving pump handles while the others simply dropped and rolled out of the way to lie panting and gasping. When they could breathe again, they dropped into benches to row. He had boatswains in charge of each side who shouted at the men, but the oars were not in rhythm. One of them started clapping his hands to set the beat. With that to steady them they found their pace. The Turk sent a lookout to the masthead and another to the bow.
Thorton glanced up. He did not know how much time had passed. A lifetime, it seemed. The frigate was disappearing into the west. It was pouring rain and booming thunder, facts of which he had scarcely been sensible so intent was he upon the needs of the galley. He saw a patch of golden light far to the south and hope flared within him. He began to search the winds. No, the waves were too rough; he could not turn her head south. He could only hope that the sunlight would catch up to him. As he watched, the hole in the clouds closed up again and the world was nothing but grey water everywhere. He noted that the stern was starting to ride lower and the slope from stern to bow was no longer so sharp. Were the pumps gaining on the leak? He looked over the side. No. She was settling deeper in the water. She had very little freeboard and had lost a foot of it already. She was slowly going down.
Well then. He must plan for all eventualities. His eyes searched the deck, but there was only one ship's boat. It might carry a twenty men. He looked over the tafferel and found the captain's gig bobbing there. So. He might save a few. Whom to pick? He would not be among them. He was now the captain of a sinking ship. He would go down with it as her Spanish captain had not.
MacDonald came up and saluted. "Guns shifted aft, sir."
Thorton said, "She's riding a little low, but her trim suits me."
A ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of MacDonald's mouth. "Aye, sir. I do believe she's low enough to slip under the door to your mother's parlor."
Thorton smiled. "Good work, Mr. MacDonald. Now see if you can do anything about that leak."
"Aye aye, sir." He went below.