Monday, July 13, 2009
Chapter 14 : Night Watch
If the cabins of the frigate were small, those of the galley were strait indeed. However, they were better furnished thanks to the personal effects the Spanish had left behind. Thorton's cabin had a mattress stuffed with horse hair three inches thick, with sheets, blankets and a coverlet, along with other niceties belonging to a gentleman of comfortable resources. He found the bed luxurious compared to his own straw stuffed pallet on the Ajax. Thorton liked being the first lieutenant on a galley—if he hadn't been flying toward a hangman's noose for the crimes of desertion and piracy with every mile. How that tormented him! To fly away from duty and punishment, to run towards freedom and guilt. He did not have time to brood because Foster came knocking at his door.
"Captain Tangle asks you to join him in his cabin, sir."
Thorton presented himself. The crystal chandelier above the table had one of its lamps lit. It cast rolling shadows over the room as it swayed. Tangle sat sprawled in a chair. He said, "Peter. Thank you for joining me," thereby signaling that the visit was an informal one. The conversation was in Spanish as the mutually intelligible language.
Thorton stepped in and shut the door behind him. He waited for instructions. Tangle's eyes were sunken as he watched Thorton. "At ease, lieutenant. This is not an official call."
"Aye aye, sir." He stepped forward and waited.
"I am not well."
"Aye, sir." Thorton nodded.
"You have assigned me a steward, but I am uncomfortable asking him to attend me as closely as I need tonight. If he sees me as I am, he will gossip to the crew and that will undermine their confidence in me. My reputation and my presence heartens them. As long as they think the great corsair is their commander they will obey and that will carry us through difficulties. You heard them murmur about the frigate, did you not?"
"I did, sir."
"Damn it, Peter, don't you ever unbend? Sit down. Here's cider. Have some. And give me some."
Thorton found another cup in the cupboard. The crystal was quite nice, very fine and delicately etched with someone's coat of arms. He rejoined Tangle at the table and poured for them both. As the captain drank Thorton attempted to take a seat but found it occupied by the ship's cat. After a brief stare down (which Thorton lost), he selected another chair. He studied the haggard corsair as he sipped his cider.
After they had drunk, Tangle said, "If the men know how ill I am, they will start to wonder if I am fit to command. That will encourage the mutineers among them."
Thorton knew an officer's charisma could make men work in spite of trying circumstances. Perry had it. Forsythe, Bishop, and Thorton did not. Tangle had it more than any two men combined. "Aye, sir. You have a wonderful effect on the men. You are an excellent captain, even if you are a corsair."
Tangle gave him a skeleton-like grin and said, "I am a corsair because I am an excellent captain. It is a rewarding career, albeit one with dangers. But not even Spanish cruelty can make me regret my fate." He waved his sparkling goblet full of cider. "But I am pleased that you regard me as well as your English scruples permit. I rely on you, Peter. You're a good officer."
Thorton was surprised to receive such a compliment. "I have an obligation to the safety of the ship first and foremost. That is uppermost in my mind, sir."
"As well it should be. You are an able officer and I admire it. Even though you are a stiff-necked Englishman, I like you."
Thorton sat up straighter in his chair as he stiffened without thinking.
Tangle smiled a little. "Even now, when it makes you swell up like a cockerel. I pray you, do not crow at me, I am paying you a compliment!"
Thorton blinked and realized the man was teasing him. He could not remember ever being teased by a captain. He didn't know what to make of it. "Aye aye, sir," he finally said.
Tangle's head swayed as the galley rolled through a particularly rough gyration. Her timbers groaned and the Turk cocked his head to listen. Satisfied, he slumped in his chair and put an elbow on the table and his head in his hand.
"I am distracted, Mr. Thorton," he said wearily. "I know I had a point to make, but I can't remember it. Pray remind me."
Thorton could not bring himself to remind the man that he had been attempting to compliment him, so he returned to the prior subject. "You were talking about the men's morale, sir."
Tangle's eyes glazed. "Morale? If you say so. I am beating about my point, and I think I had better drive straight at it before I lose the wind completely. I know you will forgive a sick man."
"Aye, sir," Thorton agreed.
"I want to be clean and have my wounds attended. I don't want to ask the steward because he will gossip. I am asking you to help me because I know you are a excellent officer who will not fraternize with the men nor spread tales about your captain. I know it is beneath the dignity of a gentleman to act the part of a body servant, but I hope you understand my reasoning." The speech came out in a rush. Tangle did not look at him; it pained him to ask for help.
"I will do it, sir." Thorton had been a sailor on the spar deck, a prisoner, a midshipman, and finally a lieutenant. His best coat was another man's castoff and he hadn't a penny in his pocket. He found it hard to think of himself as a 'gentleman' in such circumstances.
Tangle relaxed. "I am in your debt." He gave Thorton a grateful look.
Thorton rose and came around to his side of the table. "What are your wounds, sir?"
Tangle leaned forward. "Pull up my shirt and see for yourself." He laid his head on his arms.
The Turk's shirt was damp with an unpleasant smell and was smeared with red and brown. Each bump of his spine could be seen beneath the fabric where it pulled tight against his back. The terrain of the trapezius and deltoid muscles and of the latissimus dorsi were clearly limned against the thin shirt. Two years of rowing had built him up and whittled him away, leaving behind only bone and muscle. Thorton eased the shirt out of the waistband and pulled it up. The evidence of Spanish cruelty lay exposed: Tangle's back was lashed with fresh, recent, old, older, and very old cuts, welts, and bruises.
"When a galleyslave faints, they lash him to see if he is feigning. If he starts up again, they put a bit of bread and wine in his mouth to revive him. If he doesn't wake, they throw him overboard. I am near death, Peter. I confess, hope flickered in me when you came aboard and turned the key in my chain, but I am afraid that I am too weak to recover. I am set on surviving long enough to see these men safely to freedom. What happens to me doesn't matter."
Thorton called the steward for water and soap. "The captain wants a bath," he told the man. "Give us a bucket of fresh water." That sounded luxurious, not febrile. Ordinarily the potable water was reserved for drinking. Washing was done with salt water. Pretty soon the water came. It was even warm. Thorton put a cloth in it and began to gently bathe the lacerated back. Tangle flinched but held still for it.
"Cinnamon," Tangle said. "See if there is any cinnamon in the officers' stores. That will mend me best of all. And I want garlic in my food every meal if we've got it." His sentences were disjointed and made little sense to Thorton, but it was simple enough to humor a dying man, so he agreed.
"You must mix one part cinnamon to three parts flour, apply it to my wet back, and bind it up with bandages. It is a powerful poultice," Tangle instructed him.
So Thorton passed the word for cinnamon. While they waited he told the corsair, "Come, sir. Let us undress you and put you to bed."
Tangle staggered to his feet and banged his head on the roof of the cabin. He nearly fell, but Thorton grabbed his arm and steadied him. Thorton was tall enough he had to mind his head on the beams, but Tangle was taller than he by several inches. The Sallee captain slumped down to sit on the edge of his predecessor's bunk and looked up at Thorton. The lieutenant took a deep breath to steady himself. To see a powerful man reduced to such a state moved him to pity, even more because he found himself liking the man even though he shouldn't. The galley continued her corkscrewing rolls and he braced his feet, then dropped to his knees before the man. It was easier to steady himself with a lower center of balance. He reached out to take hold of a button. Tangle's half-hooded eyes gazed down at him.
Thorton was transfixed. Grey eyes met brown and they stared into each other's souls. He recognized something in the corsair that made his pulse leap. Tangle saw it too because he lowered his head to brush his lips against Thorton's. Thorton thought the galley must have capsized because he felt the world turn upside down. He was frightened—he dared not accept such an advance—even though he was lonely. Not with the noose for sailors who offended God and King. He ought not feel such things for a corsair. He ought not feel such things at all. It must be the appetites of his body wanting surcease after a long and difficult day. He should not prolong this kiss. It was a trick by the wily Turk. It was a sin, an abomination. Such were the thoughts that whirled in the maelstrom of his mind.
Tangle felt his response and cupped Thorton's face in his hands. He kissed harder. He had been reduced to the most bestial of conditions aboard the galley and now that he had been released, all of him wanted release. Yet he was in no condition to perform the virile act. He wanted to, but his blood did not quicken. It was perhaps the first time in his life that his flesh had not answered his desires. He raised his mouth to stare down at Thorton.
Thorton was breathing hard and the yearning showed in his face. Yet he pulled away and batted Tangle's hands off of him. "This is not the duty of an officer! he rasped out.
Tangle shook his head. "Forgive me. I am not myself."
Thorton gulped a deep breath and steadied himself. Externally at least. Internally his stomach was all a-sea and rolling contrary to the motions of the ship. "You are delirious," he announced. That explained everything: Tangle was out of his mind. "Let's get you to bed. Now off with this shirt."
Tangle stretched out on his stomach on the too short bunk. Thorton washed the captain's wounded back with business-like motions. His hands were gentle, but they shook. Once this had been a handsome man, intelligent and full of vigor. It would be a pity for him to die.
"This one is infected, sir. I'll have to lance it."
"Do so," Tangle mumbled into the featherbed. His back tensed.
Thorton pulled out his pocket knife. He lanced open the wound and it oozed pus. He squeezed more out and mopped it up with the cloth. He cut away some of the hardened yellow encrustations that lined the wound and it bled. He mopped the captain's back again. It was not the only infected wound; the Turk had others on his back, as well as his buttocks and the backs of his thighs. Thorton treated them all. Tangle grimaced and bit the pillow but made no cry. When the English lieutenant patted the cinnamon powder onto the wounds he gasped but held still. Thorton wound the linen bandages around the captain's body to hold the powder in place.
"By Allah, it stings," Tangle breathed. "But I'll be the better for it." With his wounds bound, he rolled onto his side. He shivered. "Cold, too."
Thorton pulled the covers up. He was glad to cover up the gaunt form that excited his pity. It also relieved him to conceal the dark masculine body that was making his blood simmer. He did not understand how he could feel such opposing things at the same time.
"Thank you, Peter. Mr. Thorton, I will have your promise on something." Tangle was wandering back and forth between formal and informal address—it was symptomatic of the disordered condition of his mind.
"I am going to sleep, perchance not to wake. I want you to promise me that you will carry these men to freedom and not hand them over to the Spanish."
"I cannot determine their fate, sir. That right belongs to a higher power."
"Promise me that you will do everything humanly possible to give them their freedom."
It was a dying man's request and Thorton felt bound to honor it, yet he could not. He was an English officer. "Don't ask me such things!" he whispered.
Tangle sighed deeply. "Then you must rouse me if anything changes. Make me get up, no matter how ill I am. I am exhausted, Mr. Thorton. But if you will not conn this vessel, I must."
Thorton flushed at the rebuke. "I will conn it, sir, but I must do so in accordance with mine honor."
"Does your honor permit you to return these men to Spanish chains? They don't deserve it. You came aboard. You know how cruelly they were treated. I am dying of it. They will die if they are taken again. To be condemned to the galleys is to be condemned to death by means of slow torture."
Thorton had once thought he would become a minister. His conscience pricked him now to think of the miserable souls he had released and had yet the power to succor. "Some of them deserve it," he said desperately.
"A whipping or a hanging to be sure, but to be compelled to sit in their own excrement for months on end? I think not, Mr. Thorton. And you don't either."
"Not that, no. But if it were humanely done. With food and clothing . . . "
"It is not humanely done, Mr. Thorton. Not on a Spanish galley."
"No . . ."
"A Sallee rover is different. The slaves keep their clothes and their religion. They can use the head and the galley is kept clean because Allah loves purity. They even earn a half share of the booty. For these reasons they know they are better off on our ships than their countrymen's, and they row willingly."
Thorton was sworn to God and King, and God came first. But King would be most displeased if Thorton's divine duty interfered with his naval duties. "I am an Englishman. I will do my duty as an officer of His Majesty's Navy." He felt quite noble and virtuous for having made his stand.
"And a damn stubborn one, too," Tangle muttered. "Very well, Mr. Thorton. You are dismissed. Go to your cabin and stay there until called for."
"Aye aye, sir." Thorton obeyed. It never crossed his mind to disobey, and that was a measure of both his character and the effect that Tangle had on other men.