Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter 15 : Moonlight Maneuvers



Thorton was exhausted. He napped as the galley lay hove to in the rough seas. He had the sailor's ability to sleep through anything. Hizir stood watch overhead. A Sallee rover, a Swede, a renegade, and a converted Muslim, his loyalty was to the captain sleeping in the berth beneath his feet. He paced softly so that his footfalls on the planks over the captain's head would not disturb the sleeping man. Sometime after sunset the wind abated and word was passed for the captain. They could not rouse him and came to Thorton instead.

Thorton dressed and went first to the captain's cabin. Tangle was incoherent. His respirations came in shallow pants. Thorton was no doctor, but he could tell that Tangle was a very sick man. He went out and called for a loblolly boy. There was neither surgeon nor surgeon's mate on board the galley. Someone would need to attend the sick captain whether he wanted to be seen that way or not. 

Coming up on the poop deck Thorton said quietly, "The captain is unfit for duty. I am taking command."

Hizir and Bellini, a small dark man serving as a midshipman, gathered around him with sober looks. The tall Swede grunted, "He seemed well enough on deck."

"You may inspect him for yourself, Mr. Hizir. I will wait for you."

So Hizir went below. He was gone a long time.

Thorton studied the sea and sky. It was still rough, but there, breaking through the clouds, was moonlight. "Raise the antennas and prepare to make sail." He did not know what course he would choose. West, to try and rendezvous with the frigate? He had three days water. "Three-quarter rations water for the crew." His orders were acknowledged. He must make for land and attempt to find water. He had no other choice.

The men were tired and there was no emergency. Getting the sails up took time—time enough for Hizir to return. He had Tangle with him. The captain was dressed in an unbuttoned shirt hanging open and brown velvet breeches, both of which were too short for him. He shivered in the night air; it was very chill on a spring night after a rain. He climbed the steps to the poop deck with Hizir's help. Thorton's jaw tightened. He said nothing.

Tangle let go of Hizir's shoulder and stood swaying on his own feet. "I am fit, Mr. Thorton." His voice was carefully controlled. "And you have contravened an order I gave you earlier today. I am displeased."

Thorton made a simple response. "I did what I thought necessary, sir."

Tangle looked around the deck, checked the sky and the sea, then the binnacle. "You have not changed our course?"

"No, sir." Thorton did not see any point in adding that he was confused in his mind about what course he should take. He had attended to the things that needed attending while mulling it over.

"It was well to make sail," Tangle conceded grudgingly. "Any sign of the frigate?"

"No, sir." 

"Anything else, lieutenant?"

"I ordered the water ration reduced to three-quarters, sir," Thorton replied.

Tangle scowled. "That order was mine to give, Mr. Thorton."

"You could not be roused, so I took command, sir. I gave the order in my capacity as acting captain of the vessel." Thorton was stiffer than he had ever been. Whatever the corsair captain might do to him would be easier to bear than whatever the British navy might do. It crossed his mind that his attempting to take command of the vessel when he had the chance might help him in a court martial, although that was not why he had done it.

Tangle muttered something in his own language, then he said, "You break my sleep and vex me sore, Mr. Thorton."

"It was not I who broke your sleep, sir. The watch sent for you but you would not rouse, so they fetched me instead." 

"What? Is this true?" 

Hizir was forced to admit that it was. He explained, "When you didn't answer no matter how Mr. Bellini knocked, he came and told me and I told him to fetch Mr. Thorton. You made him first lieutenant, sir. Thorton came up and said you were unfit."

Tangle was not at all pleased with this news. He turned on Thorton. "And did you try to rouse me, Mr. Thorton?"

"I did, sir. I would not have taken command if you had risen or spoken something coherent."

"What did I say?"

"You mumbled something in Turkish. It was nothing that I could understand, and you struck me. You would not get up, sir."

Tangle digested this news. Thorton remained wooden. Bishop would have never heard him out. Most officers of the English navy wouldn't have heard him out either. Thorton stood rigidly with his hands at his side and his eyes forward.

"I apologize for striking you. I was not myself." 

Thorton was stunned to receive a public apology. He stared at the man in disbelief. 

Tangle continued speaking. "I believe that you acted in good faith. No blame will attach to you. Next time you find me so fast asleep, douse me with cold water. Make me get up. It is my duty."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Keep this course. Mr. Thorton, my cabin please."

Tangle went down and Thorton followed. Just as his foot touched the weather deck, the cry of "A sail!" came down from the masthead. Tangle swore peevishly. "One night's sleep, just one night's uninterrupted sleep in that feather bed. Is that too much to ask, Allah?" Then he squared his shoulders and dragged himself up to the poop again.

"What kind of sail?" he asked the officers.

"Lateen," was the answer. "South by east."

That sent a jolt through them all. "The Spanish squadron, I'll wager," Tangle said grimly. "They can run as well as we can, and they haven't got a hole in their bows." He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. His eyes were intensely weary. He racked his brains as he tried to think how to dodge both the English and the Spanish. 

"If worse comes to worse, I'd rather risk my lot with your English frigate. Douse the lamps."

Hizir opened the ornate bronze lanthorn. It was very large and depicted the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, complete with flayed skin. He extinguished the light and darkness engulfed the deck. The moon continued playing peek-a-boo with the clouds. He told Kaashifa, "Pass the word. Douse all lights." 

Kaashifa trotted off to take the message to the watchmen. One by one their lanterns blinked out. The moon came out from behind a cloud and the sails glowed ghostly white, but a few minutes later it disappeared again. The sails became a dim grey fog hanging over their heads. 

Thorton entreated Tangle, "Sir, you could run into Correaux. France is at war with Spain so they will probably receive you well. Once your men are dispersed there won't be any way to round them up again."

"The French won't release the Spanish. They'll be made prisoners of war."

"That's better than the galleys, isn't it?"

"I suppose it is. I can make Sallee rovers of the moriscos. The criminals can stay in prison with the French instead of the Spanish. I like your plan, Mr. Thorton. I need a latitude and longitude. Do you know where we are?"

Tangle had been sailing blind. That he was in the Bay of Biscay, he knew, but he was not privy to the Spanish navigation records. The captain's papers had gone with the captain. Tangle had only a vague idea of where he was.

"I have an inkling, sir. I've been keeping the traverse boards. I can give you a general course in a moment. Tomorrow at noon I can shoot the sun and give you a better course."

"Excellent. What course, Lt. Thorton?" 

Thorton considered his reply. He had known where the frigate was, but there had been an interruption of more than an hour while the galley battled the storm. After that he had kept the traverse boards. He consulted the chart in his head. He felt he was likely to be correct within twenty miles. "East northeast will do for tonight, sir. We will strike the French coast tomorrow morning, God willing."

Tangle was impressed. "Thank you, Mr. Thorton. Let us go to the chartroom." 

The chartroom was the sailing master's office. It was a small room crammed with a desk, charts and instruments. A curtain screened off the sleeping quarters. They squeezed in side by side with a chair brought from the captain's cabin. Thorton went to the other side of the curtain and brought back a coverlet to wrap the Sallee rover. Tangle was intensely weary and cold. He gave Thorton a grateful look and murmured thanks. Thorton lit the lamp and it warmed the room a little. He worked his figures and rechecked them. He had recourse to a Spanish slide rule and other devices. 

Tangle watched him. "You've forgotten to carry the one, Mr. Thorton," he said.

"I find it difficult to concentrate when you are leaning over my shoulder, sir." 

"Sorry." Tangle moved back a little.

Thorton was amazed at the difference between Tangle and other captains. He felt warm and easy in his presence, yet there was no doubt that he was the captain. There was a sort of camaraderie between them, but that did not diminish the respect he had for the man. On the contrary, it increased it. He was felt that he could trust Tangle, as strange as it seemed to think he could trust a corsair that had stolen a galley out from under the nose of an English frigate. He was also relieved that he had agreed to run into Correaux. Correaux was the Ajax's next port of call; it was the logical place to rendezvous. To get the San Bartolomelo to a rendezvous with the frigate he felt would remove the stain of piracy that he feared was attaching to his person. He felt slightly guilty about not revealing this key piece of information to Tangle, but he was afraid the corsair would be frightened off if he knew.

"By Allah, I could use some coffee. I'll see if we can get a pot. And supper, too. Have the hands eaten? What hour of the clock is it? You keep working." He patted Thorton's shoulder as he rose and stuck his head out the door.

There was a marine posted outside the captain's cabin door now: one of the Salletines that Tangle trusted. Other Sallee men were serving as marines and guarding what needed to be guarded, such as the powder room, wine stores and bread room. He was pleased at the improving order on the galley. Exhausted men were sleeping below in the crew's hammocks. Hands on watch but not needed at the moment were huddled in the coach. 

It seemed to Thorton that it must be the middle of blackest night, but the action had occurred about midday. They had slept some and night had fallen; his inner sense of time was disturbed by the perturbations of his schedule. Was it only this morning he had boarded the deck of a sinking galley? It seemed an eternity ago. 

Coffee arrived. The bitter stuff was strange to Thorton, but it was hot and he was cold. He gulped it down. Sugar made it even better. The sweet black concoction woke him up.

Tangle joined him. "By Allah, that's good! The coffee is even decent." 

The corsair's stomach rumbled loud enough for Thorton to hear it. Half an hour later the steward shuffled in. He was an obsequious man with a shaved head and a blue Spanish marine's coat over the black and white checked shirt and black breeches he had scavenged. Another Salletine. The captain favored them. The steward bore a tray with roast yams and a tiny slice of beef, a cabbage salad with some sort of vinegary dressing on it and a few shredded carrots among its limp leaves, and watered cider. He placed it on the desk between Thorton and Tangle and withdrew.

 "Well, the cider must be made to last," Tangle said philosophically as he drank. He dug into his food like the starved man that he was.

Thorton was hungry too. He ate neatly but without ceremony as he worked his position out. 

Tangle's color improved with the food. He sat back in his chair and patted his full stomach. "That's much better. An hour ago I was so faint I was thinking about relinquishing command to you, but food has restored me. Well, perhaps not restored me, but saved me from perishing on the spot as I thought I surely must."

This news caused Thorton considerable surprise. "Sir?" he asked. He was still eating his yams.

"I need sleep, food, and water. And if you would be so good as to change my dressings and apply the cinnamon, I'd appreciate it."

"I will do that after supper, if it pleases you, sir."

Tangle nodded. "Tell me, Peter. Have you ever been to Correaux?" His voice was artless.

Thorton finished chewing his current mouthful and dabbed his lips with his napkin. "Never, sir."

"Then why Correaux?" In the close confines of the chartroom the rover felt easy with the English lieutenant and was more direct than he might have been otherwise.

"It is the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet of France," Thorton replied truthfully but evasively.

"There isn't much left of the French Atlantic Fleet, thanks to the British. Yet while galleys have their virtues, it is admittedly unusual for the Spanish to haul them out of ordinary and use them for coastguards, don't you think?"

"Aye, sir, 'tis passing strange and I wondered at it."

"It is because the French have been successful against Spanish possessions in the Mediterranean and menace the Balearic Islands. Thus, since there is little threat on the Atlantic side, thanks to the damage wrought on the French Atlantic Fleet by the British, they have diverted most of their round ships to the Middle Sea and left a skeleton fleet fitted out with old galleys to patrol the coast and raid the French."

Thorton wondered if the Admiralty knew about the French successes in the Mediterranean. They probably did. But that did not mean they saw fit to inform a very junior officer like Thorton. He soaked up the news.

Tangle mused, "And the British have sent an old French frigate to wander the Bay of Biscay with a lieutenant who happens to speak fluent Spanish on board. Why is that, I wonder?"

Thorton blushed a little. "Oh, that is nothing. They wanted men who spoke French." 

"Parlez-vous fran├žais, monsieur?" Tangle was adding up the French frigate, French-speaking officers, and a landfall in Correaux. He kept his guess to himself and continued to query Thorton.

"Un petit peu," Thorton replied. He turned the topic back to Tangle's concerns in an attempt to avoid too close an examination of his own. "Correaux will have a prize court. With the war between the France and Spain, I'm sure they'll look favorably upon your success."

"It is very nice of you to be concerned for my well-being," Tangle replied drily. "But also unlike you. Where is that stubborn dedication to your English duty?"

Thorton lost his smile. He sat very still.

Tangle said, "I have been giving considerable thought to Correaux while you've been working out our position. And you've done a very nice job of it, too, Peter. I'm glad to know that we do not need to depend entirely upon my addled brain for navigation. But I digress. Correaux."

Life had been cheap in both money and compliments to Peter Thorton. That Tangle was sincere he never doubted. He was a cunning rogue, but he had a streak of honesty in him. His praise gave the younger man a warm glow. Curiosity mixed with dread prompted him to ask, "Correaux?" 

"Aye, Correaux. I ask myself, why is an English captain nosing about in the Bay of Biscay in an old converted French corvette with officers who speak French? I conclude he must be attempting to get intelligence. What would he want to know about? Why, the fleet in Correaux, of course. So I ask myself, why does an English lieutenant seem unconcerned about bearding the lion in his den? And I conclude that while I was chained to a galley bench, a truce must have been declared between England and France." He looked to Thorton for confirmation.

Thorton was crestfallen. "You have it, sir. A treaty was signed last fall. I'm sorry I did not think to tell you."

Tangle tipped his chair back on two legs, but the rolling of the deck tipped him forward again and the chair legs thumped down. "I am in the dark, Peter. So many things have changed. I have tried to hear what I could, but that's little enough. New slaves bring new stories and rumors. 'Tis a poor way to be informed."

"If you had met the Ajax, I'm sure Mr. Achmed would have talked to you. He's charming and will talk to anyone with great grace and ease. But since you are his countryman, I expect he would have told you something useful." 

They sat smiling at each other. The silence grew intimate as they realized they enjoyed one another's company. Thorton jumped up and gathered the plates. He opened the door and put the tray out. He turned back and started putting away his quills and instruments.

"Peter."

Thorton turned. "Sir?"

"We're going to Correaux. I'm going to sleep. Wake me for an emergency. I trust you. If anything happens, use your best judgment. I'll tell Hizir you have command until I reappear."

"Sir!" 

Tangle rose. "Make sure you rest this evening. You have the night watch."

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton saluted.




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