Monday, July 13, 2009

Chapter 2 : Orders

The lieutenants hiked a mile to the Admiralty. Since a treaty had been concluded between England and France last fall the navy had been sharply reduced. Three-fourths of her vessels had been laid up in ordinary and their officers placed on half-pay. The whole pay of a lieutenant wasn't very much to begin with, but there was always the hope of prize money and promotion. Thorton, having become a lieutenant just before hostilities ceased, was still feeling a bit awed that he had actually been promoted. He was only three spots from the bottom of the list in seniority so it would take many years of deaths, retirements, and promotion for him to climb that list, especially now that England was not engaged in open war with anyone. Perry was higher up the list, but an orphan without friends or family in high places was going to have to wait for an opportune moment to distinguish himself in battle. In either case, they had to be assigned to a ship first. There were a great many officers in similar straits, each of whom made the monthly pilgrimage on the first to inquire for orders.

The atmosphere at the Admiralty was positively glum, what with thin, poor men attempting to warm themselves by the fire and get the damp out of their bones before reluctantly making their way up to the desk to have their names checked off with a shake of the head from the clerk. A small (very small) stack of neat white envelopes was stacked up by his elbow, and so, even though they knew they lacked the seniority and influence, each dared to think for a brief moment that one of those luscious white packets would be found with his name on it. It wasn't, and they went away berating themselves for having entertained hope when they knew better.

Perry presented himself hat in hand. "Lieutenant Roger Perry reporting for orders, sir." 

The clerk, a disabled captain in a wicker wheelchair, checked off Perry's name from the list, riffled through the packets, and handed him one. Perry gaped with astonishment. "Sign here," the captain-clerk told him. Perry took the quill in a dream and signed.

Other officers crowded round. "What did you get?" "Damn me, Perry, that's lucky for you!" "What is it? Tell us!" they chorused. 

The captain-clerk rapped his knuckles firmly on the desk. "Gentlemen! Stand back. You are in the way." 

They all stepped back, but Perry lingered nearby as Thorton stepped up. "Lieutenant Peter Thorton reporting for orders, sir." He saluted briskly.

The captain clerk returned the salute in his half-hearted fashion, then ran through his list and checked off his name. Thorton started away. "Mr. Thorton!" He turned back. A bony hand extended a packet to him.

Thorton gaped. "For me?"

"You're Peter Thorton, aren't you? That's what you said," the man snapped in irritation.

"Aye, sir." Thorton held his hat over his heart, took the packet, and signed the receipt. That took three hands so he fumbled a bit before he got himself sorted out and the quill scratched legibly across the receipt.

The two friends were stunned—and the envy of disappointed officers all around—to receive orders. They stepped out of the way.

"Where are you ordered?" Perry demanded, breaking the seal.

"The Ajax. Down at the Pool," Thorton replied in wonder.

"The Ajax! Why, I'm assigned to the Ajax too!" 

They gaped at each other. With so much difference in their seniority, it was astounding that they should receive orders at the same time when so many others did not, and even more astounding that they should be posted to the same ship. 

The other officers crowded round to ask questions, but they could no more explain the Admiralty's orders than they could explain what kept the sun in the sky or made the clouds to rain. But the scuttlebutt garnered them some knowledge. The Ajax was an elderly French corvette that had been taken and refitted during the last war. Officially classed as a frigate, she was hardly a prime assignment. But she was an assignment.

The old clerk cleared his throat officiously. "Gentlemen! You have your orders. I suggest you attend to them. Promptly!"

So they were banished to the delirious joy of searching out their new vessel and transferring their belongings to it. Perry made sure to drop by his butcher lady. Thorton idled a long while outside while Perry said his farewells and received the lady's remonstrations—and the promised mutton, along with a slab of bacon and a pair of summer sausages for their private stores. A man might survive on what the navy of England provided her fighting men, but he wouldn't be happy about it. Being lieutenants who had been a long time on half-pay, the gift was a welcome one.

They paid a man with a cart to haul their sea chests to the wharf, then paid a wherryman to row them to the Ajax, riding at anchor in the Pool below the London Bridge. She was small and old-fashioned with a lateen mizzen brailed up to her shebeck yard, but she had triangular headsails. Her sails were all taken in, but she had the yards for courses, topsails, and topgallants. Her lines were low and fine. 

A minimal crew was aboard and lined up rather raggedly to receive their lieutenants. The boatswain, a red-faced Scot bawled, "Straight lines, men! 'Tis an officer, not a trollop! Stop your gawping!" He carried a piece of rope which he snapped against the legs or arms of men out of order. They straightened up, but a few dared to scowl at him, thereby showing that they were new to the Service.

The boatswain turned to face the lieutenants and knuckled his forehead. "Lewis MacDonald, boatswain. Welcome aboard, sirs." 

He was a red-haired fellow with a nose that had been broken and never recovered. It remained squashed flat. His hair was streaked with grey and receding from his forehead. He compensated for this with a bushy pair of greying muttonchops. The rest of his hair was thin and bound into a tarred braid down his back in seamanly fashion. His features were broad and honest, with the usual expression feigned stupidity that the lower orders reserved for dealing with their betters.

There was no sign of the captain yet. The captain would be a man of substance who would have several days grace in which to put his affairs in order and arrive aboard. This would give his lieutenants time to press him a crew and set the vessel to rights. Assuming he had effective and vigorous subordinates.

"Lt. Roger Perry. My companion is Lt. Peter Thorton, reporting for duty. Who's the senior lieutenant?" 

Thorton let him speak for both of them.

"I dunno, sir. You're first aboard." 

They didn't know where to stow their dunnage until the other lieutenant was aboard. Cabins were allotted in strict rank from the captain on down. Although the captain could order the lieutenants as he pleased, he generally did so by seniority, with exceptions for political influence, favoritism and ability. In that order. Although since Thorton was a man with no seniority, no friends or relations in high places, and since that unfortunate event that had caused him to run away to sea at the age of sixteen, effectively no relations at all, he was quite resigned to being last among the lieutenants. It was a distinct improvement over being a midshipman. Laid off midshipmen received no pay at all. 

"Well, I'm Number One for the moment," Perry joked. "Best get busy." They went out on deck. 

Thorton climbed to the quarterdeck and started memorizing everything about the ship and her men that he could observe. A hundred and twenty seven feet long, give or take a little, thirty-four feet wide, she was narrower than an English-built frigate. She'd be fast if properly trimmed he thought. She had ports for twenty-six guns on her weather deck and six more on her forecastle and quarterdeck. He asked the quartermaster, "What weight of metal do we throw?"

"Twelve pounders on deck and six on the castles, sir," the man replied. He was a short, thin fellow with scarred face and a very long tail of tarred hair down his back. An experienced hand. 

"Stout," Thorton grunted in approval. During wartime a mere frigate probably would not have received such guns; they would have gone to bigger ships. With three-fourths of the ships in ordinary, luxuries like bigger guns could be handed out to a smaller vessel. Thorton was a keen proponent of superior gunnery and was pleased to have something more than the nine pounders he expected. 

"Aye, sir. I hope the deck will hold them."

"I'm sure it will. What's our draft?"

"Fifteen feet, two inches, sir."

"A little shallow," Thorton remarked. "I'll bet she can really fly." 

"She's a fast little barky when properly handled, sir," the man replied.

"You've been with her a while?"

"Four years now. Last captain was William Williams the second, God rest his soul."

"Your name, mister?"

"Smith, sir. Billy Smith."

"Thank you, Smith. Is there anything I ought to know about her?"

So the man began to tell him about the various actions she'd been in and the quality of her standing officers. Thorton walked all around the quarterdeck, looking at this and that, noting the mended wood and aging guns, and made dire predictions to himself about gun explosions and misfires. He'd have the crew drill immediately—hopefully they'd blow the weak guns to pieces before they'd left the estuary of the Thames, allowing them to get more before going to sea. That he or some of the men might be killed in such an explosion barely entered his mind. Better now than in the midst of battle. If they would even see battle.

Lieutenant Forsythe came aboard after lunch with an assortment of midshipmen. Thorton went to meet the man. 

"Welcome aboard. I'm Lt. Peter Thorton, sir." He saluted the newcomer, a fleshy, brown-haired fellow in a decent coat and hat.

"Lieutenant Albert Forsythe, reporting for duty," the newcomer replied. He returned Thorton's salute. "What's your commission date?" he asked.

"I'm the third for sure. I'm barely made. 'Tis between you and Perry for first." To one of the side-boys he said, "Pass the word for Mr. Perry. Tell him Lt. Forsythe is here." To the midshipmen he said, "You boys can get yourselves stowed in the cockpit." The midshipmen disappeared below decks.

Perry arrived. He and Forsythe saluted each other, then compared dates. Forsythe had three weeks seniority on Perry. Seniority wasn't everything when it came to promotion, but if a man lacked friends in high places, it might as well be.

Perry saluted and gave his report. "You're Number One then. Captain's not here yet. We're dreadfully short of men. I'm thinking of pressing a crew. I'd think we could get forty or fifty men tonight. Nobody will be expecting a press. With your permission I'll go get the warrant this afternoon. What do you think?"

Forsythe opened his mouth. "I think we should wait to know the captain's pleasure." 

"Aye aye, sir," they both replied. Perry was disappointed, but Thorton wasn't sure if he was disappointed or relieved. 

The next two days sped by. Perry, being the charming one, went to recruit and came back with sixteen men with some sort of seagoing experience and twelve landlubbers whom he'd gulled into believing in the glory of naval service. They were all beguiled by Perry's implication that there would be prize money for snapping up pirates as easily as picking berries on a picnic. The new hands had to be trained so Forsythe put them into sail evolutions and the raising and lowering of topmasts. Rumors were rife and the men had a nasty habit of congregating into groups to chatter instead of working. Thorton called them to order and the slow man felt the sting of his tawse. He knew his job well and he made them learn it, too. He had been a foretop hand himself before becoming a midshipman. He consulted his watch. 

"Fifteen minutes to set the topsail! What a sorry lot of misbegotten landlubbers you are! You couldn't even suck your mother's tit! I want it done in four! Do it again!" They groaned and tried harder, with scant improvement. 

On the second afternoon the captain came aboard. He was wearing a newfangled epaulette in the Continental fashion—decidedly not regulation. All the same, officers had considerable discretion in the design of their uniforms. As soon as the captain's hat reached the level of the deck, the single snare drum gave a ragged roll. The side-boys came to attention. 

"I am Captain Horace Bishop. And you are?" He was a man of fifty with a good hat and coat, a portly build, silk stockings, a sensible wig, and jowls. He had their names and commission dates, then ranked them in strict order of seniority without comment. He gave a first impression as a solid, orderly sort of captain. 

"Aye aye, sir," they replied. Seniority worked as well as anything to arrange men whose skills and qualities were unknown. Forsythe seemed a little dazed to find himself first even though he'd known it was coming.

Bishop said, "All hands on deck." 

Boatswain MacDonald piped the call and the hands hurried to assemble. They'd learned to move briskly at the end of Thorton's tawse if nothing else. The seasoned seamen elbowed the landlubbers into position. The landlubbers slouched and scowled. Forsythe did not correct them.

The captain pulled out his commission and proceeded to read it in a stentorian voice. The reading of the commission made him second only to God and King with power over these men. That done, the men were dismissed. Work on board took on a more serious air. The captain was no longer an abstraction but a real and present power. He could hang any of them if he thought it necessary.

"Mr. Chambers, Mr. Thorton, come with me. The rest of you, carry on." 

Chambers was the midshipman that Bishop had brought with him: the captain's pet. They both accompanied him to the great cabin and stood with their shoulders hunched under the low deckhead. Bishop was short enough that he could stand up without his hat.

"Mr. Thorton. You are to vacate your cabin and berth wherever seems convenient to the wardroom. We will have a passenger." 

"Aye aye, sir." It was the only answer he could make.

"A Sallee man," the captain said with some distaste. Thorton's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "Stop goggling like an idiot, Thorton."

"Aye aye, sir," Thorton replied, pulling himself together. He longed to ask more but dared not.

"Mr. Chambers, inform the cook that no pork is to be served to our guest. Mohammedans are like Jews. They don't eat pork." The contempt he felt for Muslims and Jews was plain in his voice, although he made no overt statement.

"Aye aye, sir," they replied.

So the word was passed and Thorton went to move his dunnage in with Perry. Perry's cabin was more commodious than Thorton's by a matter of inches. The cabin had a small square window that let in light and a bunk which was neatly made up with Perry's straw mattress, linens, and blue wool blanket. His seachest and other stores were under the bunk. Thorton stowed his things on the other side, leaving a narrow aisle down the middle. The room was about the size of four bunks if three been had laid side by side and the fourth at their feet. Which is to say, it was about eight feet by nine. He went in search of Perry and found him on the weather deck, calling for a boat.

"Did you hear? We're taking on a Sallee man as passenger!" Thorton announced to his friend.

That was extraordinary news. "Well, that explains why he's sent me to requisition two lambs."

"Mr. Thorton!" Bishop's voice rang out. Thorton turned and saluted. Perry was half over the rail, but he paused and saluted, too. "Did I direct you to announce our business to the world?"

"No, sir." Thorton gulped. "Sorry sir."

"I count myself a reasonable man, so I was kind enough to explain to you why you must move your berth. I did not instruct you to repeat my private remarks to the crew!"

"Aye aye, sir. No, sir. Sorry, sir." Thorton was sweating. 

Bishop's rounding on the young lieutenant had gathered onlookers. The captain roared at them. "Back to your posts! What kind of discipline do you enforce on these men? I'll have to whip the lot of you into shape!" 

"Aye aye, sir," the two lieutenants replied.

"Get on with it." With that dismissal Perry finished going over the side and Thorton fled to the wardroom. The crew was grinning to see Thorton, their driver, get a dressing down, even though the captain's words boded ill for them.

1 comment:

  1. I love your descriptions and attention to detail. I know next to nothing about ships, so much of it goes over my head, but the descriptions and details still help immerse me in the story. Meanwhile, I'm glad to see that Thorton and Perry will still be 'roommates,' so to speak, but sorry that Thorton and the Captain haven't gotten off to a good start.