Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 11 : A Change of Captains

The wind dropped and the rain moderated. Ashore it would qualify as a spring shower, but on the Bay of Biscay it was a rough ride. The swells were long and rolling but made turbulent by cross winds. To the north it was still storming with waves running away from the storm. To the south the sun broke through occasionally. 

Tangle suggested, "We can turn south now, if we are careful about it. We might be able to get out from under the eaves of this weather and put a mend on the bow." 

Thorton looked around, then nodded. "Make it so." 

So Tangle went to the rail and called out orders in a loud bellow that rasped in places. Next he gave the helm orders. The galley backed oars on one side and swept on the other. She began to rotate in place.

"A neat trick," Thorton said. "No sailing vessel can do that."

Tangle grinned wolfishly at him. "You English are wrong to give up the galley so easily. They have their drawbacks, but there is nothing better for amphibious assaults. When I was a lad we ran our galiots onto many a Spanish beach. She can hold her own in most kinds of sea combat as well." 

"Our frigate could take such a low and fragile boat as this." 

Tangle shrugged. "Perhaps. But had you met a squadron of galleys, you would have been the loser."

"Five against one is not a fair fight."

Tangle cast him an amused look. "War is not about fairness. War is about finding the advantage, seizing it, and never letting go." 

Thorton knew it was true, but he would not say so to Tangle. "We carry six and twenty twelve-pounders on our gundeck. You would not care to receive our broadside."

"If I came up on your bow or stern, they would be of no use to you, and then you would feel the galley's bowchasers. The centerline guns are a pair of thirty-six pounders and they are flanked by a pair of twelves and sixes. That gives me a weight of a hundred and eight pounds of metal against your broadside of a hundred and fifty-six pounds. The advantage does you no good if your stern is stove in and you cannot bring them to bear."

Thorton privately admitted that those thirty-sixers were worrisome. They could blow a hole in the Ajax with ease. Without the benefit of watertight compartments she would drown if she could not patch. Previously he had thought of galleys as something antique and barbarous of no practical use, clung to for the sake of vanity. She was a beautiful vessel with crimson sides and gleaming brass and her tafferel was highly decorated with skilled carving covered in gilt paint. But he was English, and moreover, he was Peter Thorton, so he would not yield. "Our marksmen in the tops would make a murder of your men exposed in the waist."

Tangle wisely did not put an oar further into Thorton's stew. Instead he changed the subject. "We could raise the main with all reefs in and let the hands rest. There is no point using them up. They need water, food, and clothes."

"Perhaps. I don't want to peel open her bow." 

Tangle studied him with an inscrutable expression. Finally he said, "A ship cannot have two captains, Mr. Thorton. With all due respect for your courage. I know galleys. You don't."

Thorton's ears burned and he wanted to squirm. He forced himself to say calmly, "I value your advice, Mr. Tangle, but I am in command."

Tangle's hands clenched at his sides. "You seem a right good lieutenant, Mr. Thorton. How long have you been in service?" 

"Thank you, Mr. Tangle. I have served with British, Spanish, and French vessels, both merchant and naval, for thirteen years now." 

"Mr. Thorton, I have been a captain longer than you have been at sea. I was a lieutenant when you were sucking your mother's tit."

Thorton flushed, but remained dogged. "I am under orders and have a duty to fulfill. The conn is mine and I don't intend to give it up."

"It is folly to be stubborn, Mr. Thorton. I have given orders and the men have obeyed me. At least those that are of a mind to obey. Some will ignore both of us until we get some discipline on this ship. That won't happen as long as you are parroting what I say."

Thorton burned even redder. He clenched his fists at his sides. "I have given orders of my own, mister." 

"And the men look at me to see if I am going along with them. It doesn't matter what you say. If I say nay, they won't budge for you. That's not mutiny, Mr. Thorton. Just a simple statement of fact, a fact that existed long before you came aboard."

"You were going to mutiny against the Spanish?" Thorton was both shocked and titillated.

Tangle gave him a lopsided smile. "If I ever got the chance, yes. You would have done the same."

Thorton was disconcerted by the Turk's perspicacity, but he had it right. Had Peter Thorton been condemned to a Spanish galley his brain would have been in a constant foment thinking how to turn the tables.

Tangle was speaking softly. "You're a good and able officer. I need you, Mr. Thorton. Most of the men condemned to the galley are not sailors and even fewer are qualified to be officers. Once the danger of the storm has passed, they will riot. We must have them well in hand before we stow the oars. That means her officers, few as they are, must be united."

Thorton chewed his lip. "I can learn what I need to know to conn this ship."

"Yes, you can. And I'll be happy to teach you, regardless of any other consideration. I like an able man and a sharp officer, and the ship needs you. She needs us both." 

Thorton thought about all the differences between Tangle and Bishop that were manifest in this meeting. Bishop would have roared and strutted and Thorton's heart would have rebelled. He would have argued and gotten caned for his troubles. But there was nothing to argue with concerning Tangle's handling of the ship and men. He knew what he was doing and did it well. If Thorton clung to all the niceties of rank and rule the poop deck was his. Those rules would give the vessel to Bishop when they rendezvoused. If he bowed to merit, the poop belonged to Tangle. And he might not see England again. Oh how he longed to see a wider sea under the command of an able captain where merit was rewarded over favoritism and a man could be who he truly was! 

His mental tumult was writ in his face. Tangle waited. He was curious to see what sort of man Thorton turned out to be. He had an inkling, but he plumbed deeper by keeping silent. Most men could not abide a silence and must fill it with noise from their own mouths. Tangle was not most men.

Finally Thorton spoke. "I yield to your superior knowledge, sir." He gave a little bow.

Tangle released the breath he didn't know he was holding. "Very good, Mr. Thorton. Do you know anything about gunnery?"

"I do, sir."

"Very good. And you passed your lieutenant's examination, so you must know something about navigation as well."

"I do, sir. It comes easily to me." 

"Excellent. You shall be first lieutenant and sailing master. Hizir here will be the captain of marines and the third lieutenant. Foster, that makes you quartermaster and second lieutenant. I'm short on officers, so we'll have to double up until I can find somebody else to serve. Now I need a boatswain." 

Hizir was a Swedish man with an Arabic name; in other words, a renegade. Sometime in the past he had converted to Islam and become a corsair. He was a tall blond man well tanned all over. He had a scar over his left eye and another on his left cheek. His flesh was pocked with other scars and his nose was somewhat flattened. He had pink nipples and—no, don't look below the waist, Thorton told himself. He turned his attention to Tangle and was obliged to notice that the Turk's nose wasn't straight either. He had a small hump at the bridge where it had once been broken. Thorton put his mind to business.

"If you please, sir. Maynard is a midshipman and a likely lad. And MacDonald is a good boatswain." Thorton was rapidly slipping into the subordinate position. Tangle's aura of command made it easy, but it was a relief, too. Thorton was a very junior lieutenant.

"Your men?"

"Aye, sir."

"Very well. Maynard and MacDonald. Do they speak Spanish?"

"No, but they have passable French."

Tangle shook his head. "Some of us speak French, but not enough. We'll have to speak Spanish as the common tongue. It will do for now. I'll drill all hands in Arabic later. First, we'll want men to guard the alcohol, the bread room, the powder magazine, the armory, the captain's cabin, and so forth. Mr. Hizir, you're also in charge of the water ration. Once everything is secure, you may dole out a pint per man."

Hizir snapped a salute. "Aye aye, sir." He headed off briskly to do as he was told.

"Pass the word for Martínez."

Martínez was a small dark man, wiry and scruffy. He regarded the men on the poop warily as Tangle addressed him. "You're the ship's purser now, Mr. Martínez. Don't let the men loot anything, but gather what clothing you can find. Make them bathe and delouse, then give them clothes. Mr. Hizir is the lieutenant of marines. Make recourse to him as necessary to preserve the goods of the ship and compel the cleanliness of the crew."

Martinez saluted rather sloppily. He had never been to sea before he was condemned into the galley. "Yes, sir." He headed below to find the keys and do his duty.

Thorton felt impotent. He had taken the water ration for granted. On a British ship the capacity for stores was very great. The frigate could put several months of water in her hold, so there was generally no need to keep a strict guard on the water (the spirits were another matter—nothing equalled a British sailor for ingenuity when it came to sneaking alcohol), but the galley had to be strict with her limited supply of water, water that was all the more precious because it was the prime ingredient needed to keep the slaves fit for rowing. Having battled the storm and being still at their oars they would be thirsty indeed. Once the oars were put up they would start to forage for their wants—and a man who had been chained to a bench had powerful wants. The marines and purser were needed to protect the ship against her men. Such a state of affairs had never prevailed aboard any British ship in which Thorton had served and never would; slaves were never used. Pressed men might feel themselves to be abused, but they were neither chained nor naked, so no matter how bitter they might feel, it came nowhere close to the sentiments of men who had been brutally bound in their own filth and expected to die like that. The stench of the vessel was making Thorton ill and he pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it to his face.

Tangle was studying the sky. "Raise the mainsail, all reefs in." To the timoneer he said, "Bring her bow into the wind." 

Thorton was lost in his reverie and did not realize he had been addressed. Tangle said more sharply, "Lt. Thorton!"

Thorton jumped. "Sir?" 

"I said to raise the mainsail, all reefs in. Do not make me repeat myself, mister." His voice was stern.

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton saluted for good measure. 

Being a stranger to the vessel he had no idea who the mainmast hands were. He went down to the deck and shouted, "Mainmast hands! Make sail!" A quarter bill had not yet been devised so the crew did not know their assignments, but a few who had been mainmast hands before their captivity supposed they were wanted and showed up. He surveyed the naked brown and black men.

"How many will it take to raise that antenna?" he asked them.

A man answered, "Twenty." He was short with curly dark hair down to his shoulders and a beard grown out to a short length. He still had some flesh on him and his brown eyes were bright. He didn't stink as badly as Tangle, from which Thorton deduced that he had not been long in the galley.

"What's your name, mister?" 

"Rabah bin Rafi, sir." His Spanish was heavily accented.

"From what country?"

"Morocco. I am a Moor, sir."

"A sailor?"

"A corsair, sir," the man replied proudly, drawing himself up to the fullness of his diminutive height.

"And what was your duty aboard the corsair?" 

"Mainmast hand, sir."

"You're captain of the mainmast." Thorton counted off additional men from those standing by. "These men are now part of your mainmast gang. Raise the main with all reefs in."

Rabah took over. He put two put at each end to control the tack and the peak, the rest to haul the halyards. He inspected the sail and reported, "Reefs already in, sir. The Spaniard tied them in." 

"Very good. Raise sail."

Rabah's gang was mostly landlubbers with no experience of sails, let alone lateen ones. He put his experienced hands where they could serve as guides to the uninitiated. They spread the bitter ends across the bridge to untangle them but kept the bights cleated on the fife rail pins. The lines would not be loosed until all was ready.

Tangle called down, "Put another five men on those halyards, Mr. Thorton! They're spent and won't be equal to the task."

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton counted off another five from those nearby. There was no expression on his face at being publicly corrected by the Turkish captain. He glanced up at the poop, but Tangle stood at the rail and said nothing further.

"Haul away," Thorton told the captain of the main in Spanish.

Rabah called out, "Haul away!" in Spanish, then repeated the order in Arabic and an African tongue Thorton could make no sense of. Thorton committed the Arabic to memory. It was his nature to learn everything he could about his duty, and that included how to command the Muslim hands. 

Slowly the great mainsail swayed up. The men groaned and sweated, but Rabah began to sing an Arab sea chantey. His Moors took up the song and hauled in time to its rhythm. The Christians could not understand the words, but they caught the melody and worked to it. Thorton had learned a few words of Arabic from Achmed, so he knew that the men were asking Allah for help, but beyond that he did not understand it.

"Handsomely!" he called out in English as the huge antenna dipped and swung. It was instinct that spoke. He required a moment to translate into Spanish. The chantey was interrupted by an Arabic oath as the men lost control of the peak and it dipped and swayed. There was a confused pause. 

"Rabah! Put those men in order!" Thorton shouted. 

The newly appointed captain of the mainmast ran among them to sort them out. Once they were right, he called to them again, and once again the great antenna began to rise. The singing resumed. The parrel creaked up the mast. It was a majestic sight to see the main raised, and it moved Thorton greatly to see the sail going up on a ship that he had feared was going down.

They hauled the antenna into place and cleated the halyards. Panting men dropped aside, but the Moors, who were sailors and recent enough additions to the galley to still have strength and pride, started coiling the lines.

Tangle called down, "Mind they keep the coils off the deck."

"Aye aye, sir," Thorton replied.

Rabah's Spanish was imperfect, so Thorton had to step forward and demonstrate by picking up the coil from where it lay and hang it on the mast. The mast, like a British mast, was surrounded by a piece of sturdy furniture to which the halyards were cleated, and the coils were hung from their pins. In this short exchange, Rabah learned the Spanish words and Thorton the Arabic ones.

Thorton looked up to the poop deck and reported, "Mainsail raised, sir." 

The lubbers thought it unnecessary to state the obvious, but sailors knew that the obvious is not so obvious. That a great spar has been raised does not mean that it has also been made fast. Thus the formal announcement.

Tangle nodded, then took the measure of his wind. "Make sail." 

"Make sail!" Thorton turned to Rabah, and Rabah repeated the order in three languages. The great sail should have opened like a curtain when the brails were loosed, but the ragged crew did not move as one. The lower portion of the sail opened first, then the upper, but the bunt was caught in the middle. The big sail flapped like thunder. Water poured out of its furls but the men below were already wet enough to not mind it. Rabah sprang forward to correct the defect. The big sail opened fully and luffed a terrible racket.

Tangle was leaning over the poop rail to watch. "Are we foul?" he called.

Thorton was watching all the lines carefully and Rabah's work, too. "No, sir. We're fair." 

"Very good." Tangle turned away from the rail and ordered the helm about. The ship turned as the rudder bit and wind caught the sail. The luffing quieted and the pregnant-bellied sail began to draw. Her ride smoothed and she began to run with the wind abeam. The men gave a ragged cheer.

Tangle called out, "On point!" Thorton hesitated. Tangle saw his confusion and explained further. "Get the antenna as close to horizontal as possible with the clew down. It'll lift better and heel less."

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton memorized all these new facts. He was grateful for the explanation. The orders made sense when he understood the reason why. "On point, Mr. Rabah." The triangular sail was tipped so that the antenna was nearly parallel to the sea and its point was secured well down. The change allowed the vessel to sail more upright.

"Ease the sheet," Tangle ordered.

Thorton relayed the order and Rabah made it so. 

Tangle watched the trim of the vessel, then called down. "Raise the foresail. She's riding her nose too hard. Sheet her loose so she raises high." 

Thorton now had a grasp of what he was to do. "Rabah and hands, to the foredeck!" 

Rabah and his gang went to the foredeck and distributed themselves with some forward and some aft the arrumbada, the forecastle that protected the bowchasers when the guns were on deck. Several of the men scrambled out on the wooden netting that ran along either side of the bowsprit—a perilous post. But they were lateen sailors and accustomed to it. Anything was preferable to chains and filthy benches. The foresail was not as large as the mainsail, and there was not as much room on the foredeck to work, so Rabah stood down four hands. The foresail swayed up and Thorton set it on point as well. That done, the waves did not break over the bow as often as they had before. 

More orders were passed. Thorton got the foresail trimmed as Tangle ordered: very high and round and full, like a kite on a string trying to pull the bow up after it. It was not ideal for speed, but speed was not the purpose.

"Lt. Thorton! Assemble a team to patch the hull from the outside. When you're ready, let me know and I'll heel her over." 

Thorton called for MacDonald and gave the boatswain the task. The Scot went among the crew to inquire for anyone with carpentry skills, and found a man who had been a furniture maker and another who had been a prentice to a caulker. Thus equipped, they went below to fetch the carpenter's tools. When they returned, Tangle heeled the vessel over to accommodate them. They went over the side in slings to do their work.

Things were settling into order and Thorton started trying to work out a quarter bill in his head. It was a difficult task when he didn't know how many hands he had or what sort, nor exactly how to carry out all the myriad duties of a galley. Those tasks were both like and unlike the tasks aboard a frigate: the watches must be kept, the glass turned, the bells rung, the bilge pumped, and so forth, but the details of how that was all done and the best way to do each differed. 

Foster came lurching along the bridge to salute him. "Yes, Foster?"

"The captain says to assemble the crew into two watches and scrub the decks and then themselves. He's tired of the stink. Turkish watches, sir."

The rain had washed a lot of the filth out of the galley, but as the sun came out and the day began to warm, the ship's odor was becoming rank in the extreme. "Aye aye. What's a Turkish watch?"

Foster explained, "Five watches corresponding to their prayers. Four watches of five hours each and one of four. That's the night watch. I like it better than the English way, you might get five hours of sleep at a time which is almost enough to rest a man."

"I see. And with the odd number of watches there is no need of a dog-watch because the hands will automatically pass through each of the watches in their turn," said Thorton. 

The Spanish, French and English all used the same system so it had never occurred to him that the watches might be ordered any other way. It was strange to him, yet the prospect of getting a whole five hours of sleep in one solid chunk held great allure. It predisposed him to regard the system favorably. With the English system a man was lucky to get four, and for an officer standing watch and watch in time of need, it was often less. He had to roust up early enough to shave and brush his coat and make himself presentable while the crew had nothing to do but turn out of their hammocks and take a piss.

Thorton sorted out more work gangs and got them scrubbing. The pumps played over the decks but with less fervor than when they were in danger of sinking. 

"Mr. Maynard, go inspect. I want to be sure every slave is out of his chains. If they are, you may go around and remove the manacles from the working men. The idlers are to be last."

"Aye aye, sir." Maynard went on a hunt and finally found the key. He was glad that Thorton had not caught him remiss in that matter. He started removing shackles from the scarred and filthy ankles.

Tangle watched the waist being scrubbed out, then gave the conn to Foster. The tall Turk descended the windward steps and walked into the play of the pumps. He began to wash himself. Maynard hurried over and removed his leg iron. As Thorton watched, a barber began to shave the Turk's head. He took off all the foul and matted hair, then his beard and even his eyebrows. After that he shaved Tangle's arms, back, armpits, chest, legs, groin—every inch of him. The filthy vermin-infested hair was washed into the scuppers and overboard. Once shaved, Tangle scrubbed again in the cold water then took a towel and dried off. Thus shorn he retired to the captain's cabin.

Maynard ran up. "Captain Tangle says to send word if anything changes." 

"Aye. Thank you, Mr. Maynard."

The crew had not been keen to exposed their naked bodies to the cold stream of the pumps, but after Tangle's example, they went willingly. A good many of them followed his example and shaved their heads and beards and sometimes more, but others simply had their hair cut short. A certain amount of horseplay accompanied the bathing and the harsh lye soap was thrown and went skidding along the deck, and men slipped and fell by accident as they shoved each other in merriment. 

Thorton shouted, "No horseplay! If you're clean, get dressed! I'm going to inspect you all!"

After they came out of the pumps he inspected them visually and by sniffing. If he spotted any sign of lice, he sent them back for a shave. It was bad enough to be on a damaged and stinking galley; he could not abide the notion of a lice infestation. Having gotten the ship and crew cleaned, he ordered out the hammocks. They were in the hammock nettings, so they had been thoroughly drenched by the storm. He ordered them scrubbed and scraped and hung up to dry. The same with the blankets.

The weather continued blustery and the wind chill, but the sun was warm. Thorton attended to business, and even got an inventory of stores and a cook. The man he picked, a skinny African named Guillermo the Negro (to distinguish him from Guillermo the Spaniard), was happy to have the job. Of all the men on board a ship, the cook never went hungry. Rice and peas were plentiful, but bread, firewood, water, wine, and all other comestibles were in low supply. So time passed.

1 comment:

  1. "...a sail going up on a ship he had feared was going down."