Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chapter 16 : Proof of Courage

Thorton stood his watch in the cold dark night. It was still damp but the wind had dropped and the log showed only three knots. He had discovered coffee and ordered a cup be brought to him to keep him warm and awake through his watch. The Salletines loved the stuff and kept a pot going at all hours. He watched the sky, the sea, the ship, the moon, and his thoughts. Presently he roused himself. Was she head down again? He went and looked over the side. He thought she was. He checked the position of the lateen sail they had spotted earlier. It was growing larger in the moonlight. Thanks to their loss of speed the strange sail was gaining again. He snapped to work.

"Dangle that lantern over the side," he directed the man. He had noted a scar on the galley's red paint when looking over the side before; the lantern showed that the scar had slipped below the waterline. The Bart's head had sunk again. Ordinarily he should notify the captain, but Tangle needed his rest. This did not qualify as an 'emergency.' An exigency, perhaps, but not an emergency. It was his to solve. He had hours before the strange sail would overtake him.

"Wafor! Man the pumps." 

Most of the crew were below in their hammocks, sleeping. A few were gathered in the coach to share gossip and rumors while others stared out into the wine dark sea. They started up when called and went to the pumps with sighs and wherefores, but the black mate silenced them with a sarcastic, "Because there's water below, that's what for, you imbecilic offspring of a midget whore!"

MacDonald was sent for and also the man who had been appointed as carpenter's mate, there being no proper carpenter. Daymen, they were getting precious sleep, but they rousted up quickly enough. They knew why they were being called in the middle of the night. They gathered their men and tools and hurried forward. A short conference was held in which it was decided to heel her over and patch the hull again. 

"If you can get her patched, then we'll open this hatch and pump her out. If not, we'll reinforce the hatch and pray it doesn't burst." 

"Aye aye, sir," MacDonald replied.

"Oui, lieutenant," the French acting carpenter replied. They got busy.

Thorton went to the poop and changed her heading to a close-haul so that she heeled well over, lifting the hole out of the water.

MacDonald came and reported "She's holed all right, about ten inches by two feet, sir. The plank and patch are both gone. The carpenter is patching now."

"Very well, MacDonald. Carry on." 

Thorton was relieved that the forward section of the galley could be sealed so well; they would have sunk long ago otherwise. Even with her head full of water she would still float. It was a delicate position, vulnerable to storm and mishap, crank and lumpen, but still, it was far better to be afloat than not. He was developing an almost superstitious faith in the watertight bulkheads and thought that English vessels could be greatly improved by the adoption of the same. Not that anyone was going to ask the advice of a mere lieutenant.

The bells were struck, the log was tossed. Speed was two and a half knots. The wind dropped further. At the next bell they were down to two knots, but the bow was higher. MacDonald made a new report. "We've patched her, but the oakum is out of her seams aft the break for a couple fathoms. 'Tis working loose and I expect it'll run all the way to the middle hold if we let it." 

Oakum was made of long strings of fiber; once the sea got hold of it, it would rip it out of the seams like unraveling knitting. Thorton's faith in the inviolability of the middle hold was now destroyed. She was going to leak amidships before the night was over.

"Can you do anything?"

"Well, sir, if you keep her heeled over I can go over the side and bend some nails over it. 'That should keep the oakum from running until we can make a proper fix."

"Make it so."

Thorton fretted. Should he call Tangle? He'd want to know about this. He glanced at the other sail. It had gained. But still, the task was within his ability to handle. Yet if it got away from him Tangle would want to know why he hadn't been called sooner. He found himself frightened of the responsibility. It was up to him to do the right thing. Still, he had able warrant officers and specialists to take care of the matter. All they really needed from him was permission to do so. He found it nerve-wracking to be in charge. Slowly, he settled. The men were doing their duty. The challenge was worrisome, but not severe. The weather was mild.

"Land!" the lookout cried.

Thorton took the night glass and trained it east. The image in the night glass was upside down making it harder to discern—day glasses had an extra lens to turn the image right side up, but doing so removed part of the light. Night glasses needed the light, so only one lens was used. He watched a long while, then slowly a low dark line that was neither sky nor water made itself vaguely apparent across the northeastern horizon. Just then the moon set and the darkness was absolute. Land disappeared. 

"Keep a sharp ear out for breakers," he told the quartermaster.

MacDonald climbed back up to the poop. His legs and coat were wetted from the waist down. He reported, "Staples in, sir. We bent quite a few nails over her seams and hope they'll hold until we can fix 'em proper, sir."

"Very good, MacDonald." 

He gave orders to fall off the wind a little and the ship eased her heel. MacDonald went below to check the leaking. Thorton went with him. They moved among men in their hammocks as quietly as they could in the dark. MacDonald's bull's eye lantern cast a narrow beam of light that helped them find their way. Wafor opened the aft hatch and they climbed into the middle hold. They crouched under the very low deckhead in water up to their knees. Water sloshed among the casks and crates. When the galley's head rose to a wave, it sloshed aft, and when her head went down and her tail rose, it ran forward.

"Are the stores spoiled?"

"I don't think so, sir. The water isn't sitting so it hasn't soaked the wood yet."

"All the same, we've got to get it out of here."

"I was going to do that after we pumped out the forward hold, sir."

"Pump this first, then the forward hold. The damage is done forward. We must save as much as we can from the middle hold. We're short on water as it is. I don't want it contaminated."

Thorton went forward to check the hatch door between the forward section and the middle section. Water was leaking around it up as high as his waist. Watermarks showed that the water on the other side had been a foot higher, but the clanking of the pump forward let him know the men were at work to lower the water. 

"I wouldn't open that, sir." MacDonald said in his Scotch burr. 

"No, I shouldn't," Thorton agreed. 

They climbed back to the weather deck.

"Our cable's going to rot if we can't get it dried out soon, sir," MacDonald said.

"I know. But all I really care about is staying afloat until we reach the coast of France. What happens after that is not our worry. We'll be back with the Ajax, God willing." 

"Aye aye, sir."

Thorton went back to the poop. Another bell sounded. The faintest decrease in the darkness of the east made the stars a little paler. Dawn in an hour. He heaved a sigh of relief. He looked around the sea but could see nothing. The lateen sail was out of sight. Just because of the dark, or had she changed course?

At dawn Foster and Maynard came on watch. Thorton stayed on the poop and talked to Maynard in a lecturing tone. He explained the holds of galleys and their lovely watertight bulkheads and the way her head rode down or up depending on the leak. He took him to look at the marks himself so that he too could reckon how her bow was riding. He impressed the boy with the grave need to be attentive to all details. Maynard was duly intimidated.

The sun came up in a rosy aurora that circled the horizon in a faint blush. It grew bright in the east. By the time the sun rose, the wind completely died and the Bart lay becalmed amid the gentle swells. How unlike the heaving, foam-torn waves of the day before! Thorton ordered the lead out.

"No bottom with this line."

"No bottom here."

He kept them casting because the dark smudge of the coast of France was looming larger as the swells pushed them nearer. She had no steerage as she drifted in the calm. The only consolation was that the strange lateen sail was likewise becalmed. They could see her south of them. With the glass on her he could see motion at her sides; she had ordered out her sweeps.

"A sail!" sounded from the masthead. 

Thorton looked over the side and saw only the one. "Where?" he shouted up to the lookout.

"Another lateen to the south southeast, beyond the first sail."

Thorton swore. "Douse the sails. Out twelve oars." The new watch was fresh from their breakfast and their first night's sleep as freemen. They were eager to work. The sails were taken in and the oars were run out. As the oars bit the rudder gained steerage way. 

He checked the binnacle. "Southeast by south," he told the helm. The galley turned and cruised parallel to the French coast. He would need to shoot the sun at noon. That would tell him his precise latitude. When he knew that, he could trace that line of latitude to the coast and know exactly where he was and how far it was to Correaux. His stomach growled, but Tangle still did not appear. 

"Mr. Foster, if those breakers sound louder you're too close. Send for me if anything changes." 

What to do? He decided to update the log. He hadn't many officers and even fewer who could write. Half the Muslims could write in their own languages, but that didn't do him any good. Only about one in three of the Europeans could write their own tongues. He transferred the details of the traverse board to the log and made other relevant notes. Whoever came after him would be able to understand exactly what had happened to the ship and where it was during his watch. Finally he and Hizir were called to attend the captain in his cabin.

Thorton saluted and said, "You're looking well this morning, captain." 

Tangle was stooping to look out the stern window. He was dressed in nothing but a robe of blue and yellow brocade he had looted from the Spanish captain's sea chest. He turned and smiled. 

"I feel much improved. I do believe I will live. Yesterday I had my doubts. Sleep is a powerful restorative." 

"Your fever, sir?"

"Broken. I feel a trace of vigor this morning. How fares the ship?"

"We lost our patch and the broken board too. We mended her and put in staples to keep the oakum from running. Land is in the offing and we are paralleling the shore on a course southeast by south at one knot. We have twelve sweeps out. At noon I'll shoot the sun and calculate our location. A second lateen sail has appeared beyond the first, which has gained on us during the night. They are south by east of us, sir."

Tangle grimaced. One lateen sail could have been anything from a fisherman to a Spanish scout. Two was looking more and more like the Spanish squadron. 

"My compliments, Mr. Thorton. It sounds like you had a quiet evening." He twitched a little as he restrained himself from running up on deck immediately. 

Hizir arrived. He'd been asleep and was still pulling on his shirt. He saluted blearily. "Rais," he greeted the man without saluting. 

Tangle replied, "Salaam." He gave Hizir a look but said nothing about his appearance. Instead he addressed himself to something he very much wanted to do before immersing himself in the duties of command. "I want my ears pierced. Gentlemen, will you oblige me?" 

The announcement took Thorton by surprise, but Hizir nodded. "As you please." 

Thorton replied belatedly, "Aye aye, sir."

Tangle pulled one of the chairs from the table and took a seat. He put a hand to his ear. "You'll find holes closed up where I had them before." His steward had a needle and four earrings ready on the table with a cloth and a small basin of water. A looking glass was by them.

Thorton had never pierced anyone's ears before—but Hizir had. Thorton stepped behind the seated man and held Tangle's bald head steady as Hizir jabbed the needle in. Tangle's nostrils flared, but with Thorton holding his head still, the twitch caused no damage. The earring went in. Hizir waited a moment for Tangle to catch his breath, then said, "Turn his head so I can reach the other one." 

Thorton turned the captain's head to bring the left ear into reach. The other earring was set. Hizir daubed at the blood, then looked critically at his work. Thorton let go and stepped back. The new gold hoops added luster to Tangle's weathered countenance. He looked more alive and less like a skeleton. Or a slave. Tangle picked up the hand mirror and had a look.

"Yes, that is more like my old self," he said approvingly. He stood up and untied his belt. "And now the hafada." 

Hizir nodded and waited while the captain opened his robe and slipped it off. Thorton could not imagine where a man might possibly wear earrings other than his ears. When Hizir knelt before Tangle and motioned him over, he was at a loss.

"Hold his testicles for me," Hizir explained. 

"I beg your pardon?" Thorton replied in considerable astonishment.

Tangle laughed. "The hafada is a Muslim custom—a rite of passage. I had them done when I was a boy, but the Spaniards took all my jewelry, the rotters. They weren't very nice about it, either. Losing them hurt worse than acquiring them."

Thorton gaped at him. "But—but—but—whyever would you pierce that?" He couldn't help glancing down at the captain's shaved groin. He swiftly jerked his eyes up again but was confronted by the powerful chest and lean abdominals. He looked away. 

Hizir grunted, "To prove his courage. A boy undergoes it to prove that he is a man. If he has it done, then in the future he cannot turn coward. The rings prevent it. Perhaps you have experienced the feeling of your bollocks attempting to crawl back up inside your body in a situation of great dread? The rings prevent that from happening. Thus you maintain your courage when other men are losing theirs due to the natural operations of the body."

"We don't do that in my country." Thorton's amazement knew no bounds.

Tangle grinned at him. "There is a reason why the Sallee rovers have a reputation for great daring and peerless courage, Mr. Thorton. Now, if you would oblige me, I'd like them to go in a little easier than the Spanish took them out." He braced his legs wide. 

So Thorton knelt and had the very peculiar experience of lifting the captain's virile organs in his hands. He diverted his eyes and attempted to hold them completely still as Hizir brought the needle near. The ship rolled gently through a swell and Tangle put his hand on the back of the chair to steady himself.

"Stretch them a little," Hizir said.

Thorton pulled gently so that the skin was taut. He had to look to make certain he didn't hurt the man and color flooded his face.

Tangle watched in amusement. "Ready," he announced.

Hizir jabbed. Thorton winced. It was neatly done: the needle went through the skin between the bulge of the right testicle and the base of the penis. The ring was placed and the gold gleamed darkly against the manly portion. Since Tangle was devoid of hair the gold ring was displayed to good effect. 

Hizir glanced up. "All right, rais?"

Tangle sucked in a deep breath. "Excellent. That didn't hurt nearly as much as having my sores lanced last night. Pray continue. I prefer a matched set." 

Hizir chose his location and Thorton held his breath, eyes wide. 'Twas a barbaric proof of physical courage, he thought. The Muslim crew members would be most impressed. Hell, Thorton was impressed. But nothing would induce him to undergo such an operation himself.

"Ready?" Hizir asked.

"Carry on." A tightening of the captain's muscles, a twitch of the warm cullions that Thorton held firmly in his hands, and the needle was through. Hizir left it there while he picked up the other ring and threaded it into place. The deed done he stepped back to admire his handiwork. Thorton rose on shaky knees. He felt quite peculiar.

"The glass, Mr. Thorton." 

Thorton handed Tangle the looking glass and the Turk admired both sets of earrings. He turned his tall lean form before the mirror and smiled. Finally he set the mirror down. "My pantaloons, if you please, Mr. Thorton." 

Thorton lifted the white pantaloons off the sea chest and handed them over. Tangle gingerly tucked the family jewels back into their proper place and did up his buttons. "I am obliged to you, gentlemen." 

Thorton felt a little pale, but murmured, "Not at all, sir." 

"My pleasure, sir," Hizir replied with a saucy grin.

"I'll meet you on deck, Mr. Thorton." Tangle continued dressing.

"Aye aye, sir." Thorton fled.

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