Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 10 : Captain Tangle

The galley wallowed. Wave after wave broke over her bow and cascaded down her foredeck. The slaves pumped and rowed, but their strength was failing. They were cold and naked, starved and battered by the Spanish. There was only so much they could do. Thorton stared at the great lateen sails bound to their gigantic antennae. They were down in their davits but ran the length of the deck from poop to prow. The Spaniard had sent them down when the weather worsened (as well he should). So much weight! And above the waterline too. Thorton was tempted to heave them overboard to lighten the load and improve the balance.

Foster came up. "Begging your pardon, sir, but Cap'n Tangle sends his compliments for the trim of the hull and wants to know if you've experience in galleys, sir."

"No, none at all. This is it." 

"Aye, sir. Then he told me to tell you not to open the forward hatch nor bulkhead, not if you fear God and love your life."

Thorton's eyebrows shot up. "And why is that, Mr. Foster? We need to patch that hole."

"A galley's hull is divided into watertight compartments. That forward hold is sealed off from the others. 'Tis full o' water, sir, so can't take any more. Her head won't drop any more than it has. If you open the bulkhead door, you'll never get it shut again and the middle hold will flood. Then she'll go down, sir." 

Thorton snapped, "Run down to MacDonald and tell him what you just told me! He's in the middle hold!"

"Aye aye, sir!" Foster practically leaped off the poop deck, bellowing, "MacDonald! Avast!" He didn't bother to climb down into the middle hold—he simply leaped over the coaming and plummeted into the dim light below.

"Mr. Maynard, send my compliments to Mr. Tangle. He's that tall Turk in the port waist. Ask him to come up if convenient."

"Aye aye, sir." The blond boy ran down.

A couple of minutes later Foster came limping back up to the poop. "MacDonald says to tell you he's astonished, but the forward bulkhead is holding. He took a measure of the middle bilge and has got two feet of water, sir."

Maynard came up before Thorton could answer. The boy saluted, "Cap'n Tangle says to thank you, sir, but it won't be convenient for him to come up until the irons are off."

The slaves were busy rowing and had given up trying to free themselves for the moment. With the frigate nowhere near there was no hope of rescue but their own strong backs.

"Who has the key?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Mr. Maynard. You are to find that key and take it to Mr. Tangle. Unlock him. Tell him to select a reliable man and send him round to unlock the other chains. Then return the key to me."

"Aye aye, sir." Maynard ran down again.

Maynard had lost his sou'wester and his blond curls were limp and plastered to his head. Still, with all the naked men aboard, it was very easy to spot the midshipman. Thorton watched Maynard free the tall Turk, who then handed the keys to the man in the next bench. The vessel was still pitching and rolling so that the men had to struggle to throw themselves onto their oars and fall back at the proper time to pull. This was a galley; men did not sit and scull like a rowboat on a lake: they put their whole bodies into it and used their weight and legs as much as their backs and arms. 

Thorton's knees were flexing like organ peddles, one rising as the other fell. His right leg was straight while his left was bent, then his left straightened while the right bent. It was like marching, but his feet never left the heaving deck and he never went anywhere. He was pleased to discover he was not seasick. He felt very proud of himself for that, then excited as he realized his situation. How many Englishmen had commanded a galley for even a short time on a doomed exercise? The news about the bulkhead cheered him; he might not sink. The Spanish had panicked and abandoned ship prematurely. His first independent command! His heart was joyful. He squared his shoulders and wished he had a spot of tea. He might feel positively celebratory if he weren't so cold and wet.

The gale settled down to a good hard blow. The thunder gave up booming. The rain came down cold and steady. The galley wallowed as she was, wave after wave sweeping over her bow and washing her waist. Then a matted and sodden tangle of hair appeared at the top of the windward stairs, to be followed by a gaunt brown face containing hollow eyes and a hooked nose. Next came a neck corded with tendons and a matted beard with a white streak in the middle. It did not cover a chest of broad shoulders with small dark nipples barely distinguishable from the mahogany skin. Far more noticeable was an ugly pinkish-tan scar the size of a hand that blotched his upper chest from clavicle to the right armpit. Powerful pectoral muscles were attached to chiseled abdominals that would have been admirable if they weren't sunk so near to the spine that supported this bag of bones. Hair on the chest and arms did little to obscure the figure. Bony knees connected to well-defined calves and narrow ankles. The feet were almost comically large compared to the emaciated flesh. The frame was there to support a goodly physique two inches over a fathom high, but Spanish captivity had wasted the flesh. Thus the man called 'Captain Tangle' came on deck, water sluicing down his skinny shanks. Thorton avoided looking at the dangling genitalia, although it was hard to pretend that they weren't there.

The creature—for it was hard to think such an apparition was a man, in spite of its form—saluted. Thorton saluted back. A baritone voice that once might have been melodious rasped out, "Isam bin Hamet al-Tangueli reporting, sir." He spoke excellent Spanish, much to Thorton's relief.

"Mr. Issa, ah, bin-um, tan-tangle," Thorton stumbled over the Arabic syllables. He switched to Spanish. "Thank you for your good work."

"Thank you, sir," Tangle replied in the same language. He studied the English lieutenant. The body might belong to a filthy animal, but a cool intelligence gleamed in those brown eyes. He was quite composed for a galleyslave who had nearly sunk, been abandoned to die by his masters, rescued by his own wits and God's good fortune, but not yet certain of survival.

Thorton, who had felt himself to be in charge of the galley, was seized by a strange insecurity. "You are an experienced galley hand, Mr. Tangle?" he asked timidly.

Lips so thin as to barely deserve the name cracked into a wan smile. "I am, but I prefer a xebec."

Thorton noticed that he had omitted the 'sir' that British protocol required. Thorton also realized that should Tangle decide to take command, there was very little three Englishmen could do about it. Foster was standing near, but he was standing nearer to Tangle than to Thorton, which was evidence of where his loyalties lay. Thorton decided not to mention the omitted 'sir.' He did not want to pick a fight he was not certain he would win.

"Your advice regarding the handling of the vessel will be greatly appreciated, Mr. Tangle," he told the man.

Was that amusement in Tangle's eyes? His expression didn't change, but he replied drily, "It was good of you to give the ship to us. And even kinder for you to accompany us on our journey."

Thorton stiffened. "We will make for Correaux, Mr. Tangle. It shouldn't take more than three days to get there."

"As long as you don't meet the rest of the Spanish squadron and can get the bow up, I agree. Have you ever commanded a lateen-rigged vessel, Mr. Thorton?"

Thorton never had, but he refused to be bested. He changed tactics, "Are you a Turk, mister?"

"I am. A Sallee Turk, but a Turk all the same. Why do you ask?"

"Because the Ottoman Empire has a treaty with England that requires us to succor one another's seamen when they are in peril at sea. Thus, at the risk of my own life, I have saved yours. It would be ungrateful for you to turn pirate and steal this ship away. Either she belongs to the Spanish, poltroons that they are, or to her rescuer, the English. She does not belong to the men on board, no matter how much they might long to take their revenge on the Spanish."

Tangle played his trump. "I am Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara, and the Sallee Republic is at war with Spain. She is lawful spoils for me. I appreciate your kind assistance, so I will be happy to set you ashore where convenient, but since there is no treaty between my country and yours, I have no obligation to you."

"There may not be a public agreement, but I think there is a private one," Thorton countered. "It is the duty of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax to convey his excellency Mr. Achmed bin Mamoud, envoy for the Sallee Republic to England, to his choice of ports in France. He carries a document to submit to the Dey in Zokhara for approval. I would hate to jeopardize the growing amity between our two nations by a premature bout of looting." 

Tangle's forehead wrinkled as he absorbed the import of that. A louse crawled out of the white streak in his beard onto his lip and he brushed it away with his hand. Thorton took a step back. Now that the wind was dying, the galley's stench lingered. So did Tangle's. The expression on Thorton's face reminded Tangle that he was naked and filthy. He had been that way for so long that he had ceased to notice. He looked down at himself, then down at the waist of the vessel where his comrades were still plying their oars. He rubbed his nasty beard in thought. Then he spoke.

"I have galley fever, Mr. Thorton. My days are numbered. What happens to me doesn't matter. But what happens to these other men matters very much. Once their chains are struck, not one of them will endure having them replaced. We will die rather than submit."

Thorton didn't know what galley fever was, but he knew that men condemned to the galleys wasted away until they died at their oars. It took about two years if a man had been strong and healthy to begin with. He said firmly, "The only submission I ask is what a free man may honorably give to another. I ask for the safety of the ship, good order, and a landfall at Correaux."

"But what happens if we meet your English master and his Spanish guests?"

Thorton shrugged. "That is not under my control, Mr. Tangle. I can give you no surety but for my own deeds." 

"Your concerns have been duly noted, Mr. Thorton." Tangle turned to watch the men at work. He clasped his hands behind his back with his legs well braced. His pose was very much that of a captain at his post.

Thorton would not yield the point and stood beside him to gaze down into the waist. He also clasped his hands behind his back—the habitual pose of a man who had learnt not to put his hands in his pocket. He was accounted a tallish man among the English, but he was a couple inches short of Tangle's height in spite of wearing shoes when the Turks was barefoot. He could not help noticing the contrast. The Englishman was properly dressed but Tangle wore his nakedness like it was ermine and velvet. Thorton's face was a coppery color on account of sunburn and tan, but Tangle was a deep mahogany all over, including places where it was improper for a man to be tanned. The Turk was so hollow he looked like he must fail to carry his own weight and cave in, but he stood as erect as any English captain. Down below the men looked up at Tangle and their hearts cheered. They paid no particular attention to Thorton. It was Tangle they looked to for leadership and him they willingly obeyed. Slowly it dawned on Thorton that he had never had command of the galley and never would. 

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