Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 13 : Interception

The wind was fitful and the sails luffed like thunder. They filled again, but the wind was not steady. The frigate loomed large and Thorton watched it continuing to creep closer. Again the galley's sails luffed. He consulted the binnacle in its case. He looked at the sails, then the helm. 

"I think the wind is veering a little northeast. What do you think?" Thorton said to Hizir, the renegade Swede who was burned as brown as a Turk. His hair had been shaved close to his scalp but not entirely removed. A red cloth was tied over his pate and he wore a white shirt and red Spanish uniform breeches. He was the same height as Thorton, even in his bare feet, and had the wiry, muscular build of a galleyslave.

"Yes, I think so, too."

"Give us a point east. Keep her full and by." The helm obliged and the sails filled properly and stopped their racket.

Thorton sent word to Tangle and the man appeared on deck a little later. He was bleary-eyed and unsteady on his feet. When he stood near Thorton, the lieutenant could smell the sweaty, sickly smell of him. The officers on the poop saluted. 

Tangle saluted in return, then said, "Glass?" 

Thorton produced the spyglass from his coat pocket. 

Tangle studied the frigate through the glass. "She's making good time. How many knots for us?"

"Eight last time we heaved the log, sir."

"Throw it again. This galley is capable of at least nine with a wind like this. She's not making the speed I'd like. Are you keeping her bow pumped out?"

"Aye aye, sir. Maynard! Make ready the log!" Thorton stood by with his watch. "Out log!" 

Maynard tossed it over the tafferel. It splashed into the water and the knots ran out. 

"Time!" Thorton barked. 

"Seven and a quarter, sir," Maynard replied.

Tangle nodded. "I thought we'd lost speed. Set a course southwest, please."

The helm responded. Thorton frowned. The new course would take them out to sea, away from the French coast, away from the frigate, and if they ran long enough, towards Spain. They dared not run that direction for long, both for the peril of the Spaniards and their own want of water. It was now obvious to the frigate that they were trying to avoid a meeting. The news must be causing considerable consternation on the Ajax's quarterdeck.

Tangle spoke. "Make a signal, 'Enemy sail sighted,' Mr. Thorton." It was not implausible. The rest of the Spanish squadron was out there somewhere.

Thorton hesitated. To participate in a deliberate deceit was a step toward the hangman's noose. "I cannot, sir. I am an English officer and duty-bound to Captain Bishop." He stood rigidly at attention.

Tangle shot him a look, but called to Foster instead. The renegade ran the signal up. On the frigate's deck no doubt glasses were straining to make out the signals. Even if they could not read them at this distance, there was only one explanation that would make any sense to them: an enemy in sight that the galley could see, but not the frigate.

One by one the Ajax's studding sails bloomed. She gathered speed as she raced southwest to meet the enemy. It was a glorious sight to see, and if he hadn't been the object of their chase, Thorton would have enjoyed it a great deal. As it was, it frightened him. If ever the frigate caught the galley, they were doomed. He envied Perry who had only to obey his commanding officer and do what his heart wanted to do: fly before the wind as he raced to give battle to the enemy!

The crew of the galley was all watching the frigate and speculating. With both vessels running southwest the galley would be the loser. It was the frigate's best point of sail and their worst. The distances shifted as the frigate ran on towards destiny and the galley fled it. How angry Bishop would be when he discovered the deceit! Thorton was mortified. How would he explain himself? No one had put a pistol to his head. He had no excuse. He had meekly handed over command of a neutral vessel to a Sallee rover. And not just any rover! The Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara.

Zokhara. Capital of the Sallee Republic. Each port of the Sallee Republic sent out galleys and xebecs, barques, galiots, frigates, polacres, feluccas, and brigantines, to raid and harass Christian shipping. They were always at war with Spain, and often with the Italian republics, and from time to time with France, England, the Dutch Republic, Denmark, Russia, the Hanseatic League, and Sweden. Any country that wasn't Muslim took a turn filling the corsair galleys with slaves and loot. Occasionally they even went to war against their fellow Muslims, but these differences were put down by the Sublime Porte, as the sultan in Istanbul was called. 

Maybe it would be all right. Achmed was negotiating an arrangement. He was not an ambassador and it would not be a treaty because the Sublime Porte reserved diplomatic rights to himself, but still, an envoy would come and an agreement would be made. Perhaps Thorton would not be condemned for helping them. He prayed fervently to God to watch over him and keep him from harm. There was no one else he could ask for help.

The afternoon wore on with the frigate gaining on them as they ran. The wind turned colder and more clouds piled up overhead. It could have been exciting, but it wasn't. It was an endless afternoon of 'hurry up and wait' as the frigate steadily gained on them. 

"They're making a signal," Thorton informed Tangle. "Ajax to galley: query?"

"Send the reply, 'four sail south.'"

Thorton wouldn't send it. Another man had to do it, one with fewer scruples than the blond lieutenant. In other words, Foster, the renegade. He was perfectly pleased to deceive the navy of his homeland. 

Tangle swore in Turkish. In Spanish he told Thorton, "We made too much leeway. I wanted to be to windward of her. She is going to weather us." 

Thorton replied, "Bishop is a competent captain when it comes to handling the ship." His voice was a little grudging.

Tangle asked, "Is he?" in a neutral voice.

Thorton shrugged a little. "Adequate. Lacking in imagination."

Tangle nodded and added that to his store of knowledge he needed to win this race. Then he croaked, "Water. I need water." 

Thorton passed the word and a skin was fetched. Tangle drank. Thorton watched. The wind blew. The sun shone. The clouds piled up. The frigate and the galley raced on. Half an hour passed tensely. The frigate was overhauling the galley and would soon come up on her.

MacDonald ran up. "Begging your pardon, sir, but we're leaking." Not knowing Spanish, he spoke English. Much to everyone's surprise, Tangle replied in the same language.

"Man the pumps, MacDonald."

The Scot and the Englishman looked at him in astonishment. 

"Foster and I were bench mates for more than a year. I taught him Arabic and he taught me English. I can swear and talk about the ship and the weather, but nothing more." 

"Aye aye, sir," replied MacDonald. He went below.

Thorton looked at Tangle in amazement. A galleyslave improving his education while chained to an oar? He did not think he could have done the same. It bespoke an uncommonly developed mind.

The frigate kept her course. She was going to meet the enemy she thought was out there, and so continued to close in spite of the opposition of all the hearts aboard aboard the galley, with the exception of three of the four Britons. To make matters worse, a squall was sweeping towards them. Thorton spoke. "Mr. Maynard, my oilskin and sou'wester please. I left them in the captain's cabin." 

"Mr. Maynard," Tangle said in Spanish. "Get me an oilskin and hat from the Spanish stores, if you please."

"Aye aye, sir." The blond boy scampered away.

The temperature dropped and the wind veered more easterly and freshened. Every change in the wind conspired to bring her closer to her ruin. "Mr. Thorton, take in two reefs. We're going to receive a gale."

"Aye aye, sir." Personally he thought they could stand it a little longer, but then again, the big lateen sails were hard to handle. He gave the necessary orders and men swarmed up the antennas. Hauling the big sail to the mast and tying it with the knittles was a long and laborious process. They must wrap their legs around the antenna and lean down to grab the sail and haul it up. Up there the motion was far more exaggerated than on deck. In ordinary circumstances the vessel would be brought dead into the wind to ease the burden of making reefs, but not today.

Tangle spoke. "Keep those men up. The instant that squall engulfs us I want to make all sail. I wanted the weather gauge, but I'll take what I can get. As soon as we disappear in the rain, we'll run east." With the wind from the northeast, it would be an ideal course for the galley, but not the frigate. Ideal if the galley could withstand the weather. The squall would not bother the frigate much. Still, Thorton knew that Bishop was conservative in the extreme with foul weather. It might work.

"Aye aye, sir." Would the rain or the frigate arrive first? There were murmurs in the waist as the crew saw the frigate come up. Tangle waited still. The curtain of rain was sweeping across the seas and the waves were rougher. The galley bobbed like a cork and waves broke against her poop.

"Dammit, Thorton, I need a steward! Were the storm shutters set in my cabin?"

Thorton paled. "I don't know." He passed the word and received the reply. "No, sir. A hand is setting them now." 

Tangle's brow was dark and angry, but before he could say anything, Thorton spoke again. "She's making a signal. 'Take position two cables off my larboard.'" The frigate reduced sail to pace the galley.

"Damn square-riggers. They think the world revolves around them," Tangle replied. Then he said, "Send the affirmative. The rain isn't going to cover us. Prepare to spill a little wind from the foresail. When the frigate overshoots us, we'll turn south. As soon as we disappear in the rain, I want to tack to the east with all sail." If he succeeded, the frigate would think they were running slowly south before the gale but in reality they would be racing east.

Thorton didn't know if he planned to obey or not. He was in a stew, but his hesitation was overleaped by Foster who made the signal in spite of his doubts. The frigate was coming closer, within long range for her guns, but her guns were still inside their ports. They watched tensely. At just the moment that the frigate was coming along their starboard side, Tangle gave his order.

"Fall off." 

Thorton bellowed, "Fall off!" The foresail luffed noisily and the galley lost perceptible headway. The frigate shot ahead.

Tangle said, "Every man to the windward rail. Prepare to gybe. The moment the galley comes around on her new tack, send them to the other side." 

Thorton shouted his orders. "All hands prepare to gybe! Idlers to the windward rail! Main and foremast hands to the halyards!" The men tensed and readied themselves. They all knew the risk. A bungled gybe would leave them sitting dead in the water for the frigate to run up on.

Tangle glanced over his shoulder at the English frigate. She had backed sails and was wallowing in consternation. She had lost her way. Bishop was confused by their maneuver and had not started his turn. She missed stays. 

"Helm hard over!" Tangle snapped.

The helmsman threw his weight onto the tiller. The Bart turned her stern across the wind. The Bart turned and the wind blew over her larboard rail. 

"Drop antennas! Full speed!" Thorton bellowed to the crew. This was the hard thing about a lateen-rigged craft; her antennas must be lowered, dragged around the mast, and raised again. The great antennas came hurtling down so fast that for a moment Thorton thought the main was going to pierce the hull like a giant javelin, but it caught up short. It slammed onto the deck with a thud that made the timbers shudder. The galley righted herself as the press of sail was lost. The end of the antenna was heaved bodily around the mast. 

"Idlers to the larboard rail!" Thorton bellowed.

The men ran across to the other side. A roll-tack, let alone a roll-gybe, was something a frigate would never, ever do, but Thorton had caught the sense of it. The galley, being so light and shallow, was very sensitive to the placement of weight aboard. The weight of a hundred and fifty men was eleven or twelve tons. Where they stood mattered at moments like this. All the same, it was a crazy maneuver that could go horribly wrong.

"Make all sail!" Tangle bellowed. The reef knittles were rapidly loosed while the sails were still on deck. The large gang needed to haul her sail grabbed one or two knittles each and yanked. That done, Tangle shouted. "Raise sail! High peaks!" 

Up went both sails, and quickly too, for most of their weight was on the bridge as loose sails heaped on the deck. The petty officers shouted the heave-ho, and then the sails bellied out and flapped like thunder. The hands on the sheets bent them around the belay points to keep control of the sail. She was drawing hard before her sails even reached the peak. She heeled so far over so that the foaming waves were frothing over her lee benches. Had there been any slaves in the benches they would have been drenched to the waist. Thorton had not timed it, but he thought they had accomplished it all in about six or seven minutes.

"Ease the helm a point," Tangle said calmly. She reduced her heel, but still was running hard over. The Turk watched the storm and sea. Waves crashed against her larboard side and sent up huge sprays. The men clinging to her rail were thoroughly wetted.

The sudden change of course caused considerable consternation on the frigate. Thorton could imagine the scene. The Spanish screaming that the galley had turned pirate and must be pursued, the doubts about the signals, the accusations of deceit and disloyalty. His name was black now. He was the very opposite of what he'd ever thought he'd be. Against his will he had become a pirate.

The frigate slowly turned. She had lubberly hands with not much experience; not only did she have to make the turn, she had to haul in her studding sails. That was a maneuver her crew had little training in. Thorton timed them. 

"Sixteen minutes to get the studding sails in. They need practice." Only then was the Ajax able to make the gybe to follow the galley. Thorton timed that as well. "Nine minutes. God, they're bad." It was no consolation to him that with all the training he and the other lieutenants had given them, they had halved their time. They had only been to sea a few weeks after all. The Ajax was eight points off the wind on a beam reach while the galley was five points off, running close-hauled. The frigate trimmed her sails and came a point closer.

Tangle snorted. "If it was me, I would have left the studding sails. They'll need every stitch of canvas they've got to try and chase us now." They had a twenty minute head start that had enabled them to run hard and fast, gaining headway on the frigate. 

"Bishop is no daredevil." But you are, Thorton added silently. It frightened and thrilled him. The men continued to cling to the windward rail. The wind freshened and the first spatters of rain came down. 

"Toss the log." 

Twenty-eight seconds later, Thorton said, "Nine knots, sir."

Tangle smiled. The rain swept across them at last and just as effectively as a curtain screened them from each other. "Take in one reef."

Thorton heaved a sigh of relief. "One reef!" he bellowed, passing along the captain's order.

Tangle had tempted fate and gotten away with it. He'd known he would. He knew exactly what he was doing, how to press his vessel for everything she could give, how to balance her between disaster and victory. Thorton had to admire his skill and his nerve. He'd grabbed all speed he could to make the turn and get out of gunshot, but dared not keep so much canvas aloft in the wind and rain. The making of the reef was painfully slow with such wet and heavy sails, but the reefs eased the wildness of the ride a bit. She heeled a little less, but she still cut through the water at a breakneck speed. Tangle watched, turning his head to take in the frigate, but she was a wavering grey shadow in the rain. He could not determine her sail set in the dimness of the squall, but their courses were diverging.

MacDonald came up and saluted, "Begging your pardon sir, but the patches are out and we're taking water. We've got a foot and a half forward already. I've kept the bulkhead sealed and went down through the fore hatch."

"Thank you, Mr. MacDonald. Pump and mend. As much as it pains me, I'll have another reef in those sails, Mr. Thorton," Tangled replied.

Thorton bawled the order. The sodden hands went up the antennas and took another reef in the waterlogged sail. As the sail area reduced, the heeling eased further. They had no carpenter, so MacDonald must do the job himself. He mustered some hands from among the idlers on the rail and went below. 

Tangle spoke conversationally to Thorton, as if the slant of the deck beneath his feet and the sheets of spray breaking over the bow were routine to him. "Ordinarily we'd bring the antennas to the deck to put the reefs in, but now is not the time. Toss the log again please."

The log was tossed, and Thorton reported, "Eight knots, sir." 

The galley pitched and rolled as the waves broke over her foredeck and sent up great sprays as she buried her head in the sea. Low as she was she could not help shipping water, but the buoyancy of her compartmentalized hull sent her bobbing to the surface like a cork. The bow came up and the concave deck shed water in great streams. Each scupper was a cataract.

The sun still shone on the waters south of them. It was a glorious scene and Thorton thought that he might like to paint it, if he had had any skill at painting. The rain came down in sheets and ran off their oilskins and hats. The men working on deck were soaked. 

They ran for almost an hour, until MacDonald came back and reported. "Mended, sir." The frigate was well out of sight in the driving rain.

Tangle gave another order. "Prepare to tack. We'll put the third reef in while we've got the spars down, Mr. Thorton."

So the great antennas were lowered to the deck, the reefs tied in, then hauled around to the other side of the mast, and raised up. The new course was north, on her best point of sail, under treble reefs. She clipped along and the log gave six and a half knots. The frigate would have to beat about on the last known course to find her, but not until the rain cleared would she discover her mistake. Bishop lacked imagination. It would not occur to him that the galley would run back the way she had come. 

"Will we have enough water, sir?" Thorton asked.

"Harvest the rainwater. We will make do with what we have."

"Aye aye, sir."

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