Friday, July 17, 2009
Chapter 23 : Dinner
"Lieutenant Thorton?" Coming from the bright lamplight into the dark of the courtyard Forsythe couldn't see anything. He did see a pale blur that he thought might be Tangle's turban. Tangle jumped to his feet while Thorton turned away and grabbed his hat and crammed it on his head in hopes of hiding his face. Tangle walked swiftly forward to forestall Forsythe's advance. He deliberately slapped a tree branch out of his way so that it made a rain of white petals that screened whatever was behind him. Thorton could not see Forsythe because Tangle was directly between them. He darted around behind the tree. His heart hammered in his chest. So nearly caught! Thank God Forsythe was deficient in wits.
"Mr. Forsythe, is it not? Tangle's baritone French was smooth.
"Aye, sir. I'm looking for Mr. Thorton. They're going in to dinner. Have you seen him?"
"I did. We were discussing the relative merits of Islam and Christianity while we took the air earlier. He isn't here anymore, though. I'm sure we will find him in the dining room." He took Forsythe's arm and steered him toward the lights. Everything he said was the exact truth, and yet, it was pure deceit.
Forsythe looked over his shoulder at the pear tree. "Was someone with you?"
Tangle chuckled. "I already told you. I was talking to Mr. Thorton, but he's gone."
"I thought I saw . . . ."
Tangle kept a tight grip on Forsythe's arm and propelled him through the door. "A gentleman does not pry into another gentleman's affair. If you persist, I will be forced to think you do not regard me as a gentleman."
Forsythe flushed and tugged his coat straight when Tangle released him. "Oh no, sir, I never meant to imply any such thing!"
Tangle smiled warmly but falsely at him. "Of course you didn't. Shall we go in to dinner?"
Better men than Forsythe had bent to the corsair's will. He had no option but to do as Tangle wished. "If you please, sir," he replied. At least he knew how to capitulate gracefully. That might be the secret of his success in the British navy: he had a habit of doing as he was told.
Everyone was there except Thorton. They were waiting for the guest of honor. Bishop glared at Forsythe and the lieutenant swiftly disentangled himself and darted around to the other side of the table to join his captain.
Tangle smiled and bowed to accept their felicitations and salutations. He made his way around to the head of the table. He had the old Admiral Renaud on his left and the elderly Lady Choisy on his right. Bishop was located at the other end, next to the consul. Forsythe, being a nobody, had a seat near the middle of the long table. Thorton managed to slip in and find his place midway along the table opposite Forsythe.
Dinner was excellent with a salad of spring greens in a rich sauce, boulli of broth with its meat, Rouen duck in orange juice stuffed with shallots, pepper and parsley, a roasted roebuck, salmy partridges, and a dessert of fruit tarts and cheese, accompanied by a cherry cordial. Side dishes included couscous served with spices and butter, which baffled the English but delighted Tangle, artichokes, eggs in partridge gravy, and various small dishes made with the leftovers from the larger meats, such as ducks' feet in sauce. It was served on blue and white faience porcelain dishes made in France, better than anything the English had. Better than anything had by the English with whom Thorton was acquainted, anyhow.
The wine was very excellent and flowed freely. Sadly, Thorton was no judge of wine and knew only that it was wet and intoxicating. He merely sipped it. As for Tangle, he drank heartily and was well on his way to being drunk under the table by several of the elderly ladies present, but he had not yet succumbed. In fact, thanks to the darkness of his complexion, the flush of wine was not obvious. He grew loquacious with drink and his voice grew louder, but as he had not yet stood up, he did not realize he was sailing with three sheets loose to the wind.
The dinner guests were happy to be regaled with tales from his career. He was busy explaining his miraculous escape when bottled up in Djerba harbor some years earlier. The dessert plates were being cleared by unobtrusive footmen.
"The peninsula is almost an island, and around the port it is low and marshy. The harbor has several coves, but only one entrance which is so narrow that only one vessel may come out at a time. So the Spanish ranged a dozen galleys around the entrance with their guns trained on the only exit, waiting to blow us to pieces one by one. "
He commandeered several pieces of silver and a gravy boat to represent the situation. "I had my xebec, the Sea Leopard, and a very fine and well armed vessel she was, but in my train I had a pair of galiots and half a dozen galleys. The passage out winds like a snake so it is impossible to make a charge out of the harbor. I was pretty sure that I could bowl my way through with the xebec, but not so the other vessels. Being a small place, we had no more than a month of supplies. The Spanish settled in to wait us out.
"I mentioned that the land is low and marshy. There was a creek that lead across part of it. It came to within a mile of the shore in back of the point. This was when it proved most beneficial to be an educated man. In the History of Ibn Fadhlan the Traveller he told about how the Northmen would make a portage by picking up their galleys and carrying them on their shoulders. I thought that if the pagans could do it, we could, too. Our galleys are bigger than theirs, but we are a civilized people and they were not, so we had the benefit of engineering.
"I took everything out of the galleys that could be taken out, rigged their tackle to the trees, and dragged them across land on greased skids. We launched them on the beach and put their guns back in them but nothing else. Time was everything. I went back to my xebec, and exactly at dawn, just before the sky lightens in the east, we crept to the mouth of the harbor. At that moment the six galleys swept upon the Spanish flank and threw them into confusion. The xebec charged out, the galiots after us. We sank three, captured six, and three got away. Including Admiral Doria who showed us a very clean pair of heels."
Applause greeted his story—except for Bishop who thought the whole thing poppycock. He had also had enough wine to say what he thought. "Dragging ships over the land? Balderdash! You're nothing but a lying pirate!"
Tangle leaped to his feet and slammed his hand down on the table. The crystal jumped and rattled. "I am no pirate, ye damned dog! I am a corsair!"
"And these Frenchmen are licking your thieving boots while Spanish gentlemen rot in prison. The frogs haven't the bollocks to fight so they hire a knave like you! They don't know how you ran from me with your tail between your legs. You left that out of your story, didn't you!"
"Ha! You cut your grapples to save your own hide and left me to drown! You advanced very rapidly to the rear that day!"
"The Spanish should have stretched your filthy, piratical neck when they had the chance!"
The Admiral stood up and shouted, "Gentlemen!"
Fudaid cried, "Peace be upon you! Let's have no quarrels at the table, please!"
Tangle had the wind in his sails and there was no stopping him. His teeth bared in a fierce snarl. "You have made me an insult that can only be wiped out in blood! I demand satisfaction upon the field of honor!"
Bishop jumped to his feet and his chair pitched over backwards. One of the liveried footmen grabbed it and set it up again. "Pistols at dawn, sirrah! I'll drill you like the gutless whoreson you are!"
Tangle drew himself up to his full height, but he had a definite list to starboard thanks to the heavy ballast of wine he was carrying. "Choose your second! I accept your terms!"
"Mr. Forsythe will second me." It was an order, not a request. Forsythe turned unusually pale as he got up and hurried to his captain.
Tangle's head swung heavily around the table until he spotted his quarry. "Thorton will second me!"
Thorton was suddenly oppressed by the weight of eyes upon him. He sat very stiffly and replied, "Gentlemen, I implore you. It is the wine talking. Let it go."
There were nods and further remonstrations from the guests. Somebody patted Bishop's arm and the Admiral tried to reason with Tangle. The two captains ignored them.
Tangle persisted. "I asked you a question, Mr. Thorton. Will you be my second?"
There was no escaping it. Thorton rose quietly and said, "I will, sir. But my advice is to set this quarrel aside."
"I'll have none of your stubborn English ways, Thorton! Mark this: I will nail him between the eyes."
"The Devil you will! It will be my pleasure to plug you where it will do the most good, in the mouth!" Bishop stormed.
Forsythe gave Thorton a beseeching look. Thorton spread his hands helplessly. There was nothing the two lieutenants could do. Bishop pushed his way to the door with Forsythe in his wake. "Ajax!" he bellowed, and the men roused from their drinks in the common room to accompany him back to the ship.
Thorton came around the table to Tangle. "Come, sir. We must get you to your bed if you are to be fresh for the morrow. Please excuse us everyone, but I know you will understand."
Thorton had to take Tangle by the arm and pull him out of there. The corsair rolled as he walked, bounced off the door frame, and stumbled outside. His marines and Mr. Foster caught up to them. Kaashifa came running after with the lantern. It was a good thing there was not much traffic in the street at that hour because Tangle was meandering like a rudderless ship. He tripped and nearly fell into the gutter. Thorton had to haul him clear. Tangle had no idea what peril he had been in. He grinned at Thorton.
"There's a good friend, Peter. Let us walk arm and arm together like brothers." He hooked his elbow with Thorton's. Thorton sighed but endured it. "Have you got a pistol, Mr. Thorton?"
"Not with me, sir."
"I have. I think." Tangle patted the two patch pockets in the skirt of his coat, but came up empty. He turned to the marine. "May I borrow your pistol, please? I want to practice my shooting tonight."
The notion of a drunk Tangle shooting up the town was more than Thorton could bear. He rounded on him. "How dare you utter such a reckless and foolish thing! You who are supposed to be the greatest corsair of the age! You're stinking drunk! And you've been chained in a galley for two years. You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if you were in it!"
Tangle was not angry at this speech. He tried to reason with Thorton. "That is why I must practice. I intend to plug Bishop. I don't want him to drill me." He swayed very gently from side to side as he spoke.
Thorton grabbed his arm and started dragging him along the road in the direction of Galley Cove. "Help me get him home," he told the others.
Foster came along the other side, but Tangle forgot what they had been arguing about and began to sing in Turkish, his left hand waving in time to the music. His baritone was loud and on key. Thorton might have enjoyed it at another time, but not now. Somebody threw open a window and yelled out into the chilly evening, "Stop your filthy foreign caterwauling!"
Tangle made a rude gesture in that general direction. He tripped over a loose stone and fell. He tried to get up, but he couldn't. Instead he puked on the cobblestones. Thorton and Foster pulled him up again. It took an hour and he threw up twice more, but they eventually reached the galley. He had to be hauled aboard in a bosun's chair because he couldn't climb the ladder. Thorton dumped the captain into his bed, pulled off his boots and turban, stowed his sword well out of reach, stripped him to the skin, and washed him. The rover was snoring before he was half undressed. Thorton sighed but finished the chore. He wrapped up in a blanket and slept on the floor, just in case the drunk corsair woke up and did something foolish.