Friday, July 17, 2009
Chapter 24 : Duel at Dawn
Thorton woke Tangle painfully early, before the false dawn, with a single lantern lit in the cabin. The captain groaned and held his aching head, but Thorton had no sympathy for him. He mercilessly jerked the covers off to expose him to the chilly air, then rolled him out of bed. Tangle fell on the floor with a thump. He moaned and crawled onto his hands and knees. Thorton grabbed the naked corsair by the back of his neck and dunked his head into a tub of cold water.
Tangle came up sputtering. "I'm awake! Damn you! I'm awake!"
"You left standing orders to douse you if you didn't rise when you were needed. Your soap, sir." He handed it over.
Tangle grumbled in Turkish, but scrubbed himself in the cold seawater. Thorton served him breakfast: cherry cider, oatmeal, a boiled egg, and a mashed yam. Tangle drank a great deal of water and cider, then went to the roundhouse to relieve himself. He shaved in sullen silence, then got dressed in his good clothes. They had been brushed and pressed overnight. The boots were freshly shined. Aside from his aching head and cottonmouth the corsair was quite presentable. Thorton had slept in his shirt and breeches and looked a little rumpled. He dragged a comb through his hair, re-braided the long blond queue and folded it up and tied it in a club with the black ribbon. That was about the best he could do without his sea chest. While Tangle was pulling himself together, Thorton prepared the pistol, cartouche, and shot case. Finally they stepped out on deck.
The habit of command carried Tangle through. "Mr. Bellini. Turn the ship around. I want her stern lightly on the sand. Her business end should always point to the sea. It had better be done by the time I get back. I want everything shipshape. We're leaving today. Probably in a hurry. I plan to kill a man."
"Aye aye, sir," Bellini replied.
Mist lingered everywhere. It was cold and damp and made a halo around the lantern that Thorton carried. The white facings of his dress uniform were ghostly in the crepuscular light. He wished he could change, but he was obliged to wear what he had worn to dinner the night before. He did not care to borrow a shirt off the lanky corsair. They walked briskly along the road, encountering a few woodcutters and farmers, but no one else. Thorton hailed a wagon loaded with cabbages, and they were allowed to sit on the tailgate. In this way they saved their energy and Tangle spared his wounded leg.
They arrived at the appointed place. The quay was at the edge of the harbor next to the marsh. The lanterns of ships in the harbor glowed like fox fires in the fog. The chiming of harbor bells could be heard, then the ringing of ship's bells. Six am. The ships themselves were vague hulking shadows in the dim light. The opposite side of the harbor was impossible to see. There was no wind, just a damp chill that worked its way through clothes in a thoroughly unpleasant manner. Thorton set the lantern on top of a piling and waited. He checked the pistol again. Eventually they heard the quiet splash of oars and Bishop's gig loomed out of the fog. It bumped gently against the quay and the sailors tied up.
The neighborhood was desolate: the warehouses were inactive. French commerce had suffered greatly due to the depredations of the English during the last war and the ongoing raids by the Spanish in the current one. The lanterns carried by the dueling party were the only lights.
"Good morning, sir," Thorton said, saluting Bishop properly.
Bishop scowled at him and made a vague gesture intended to pass as an acknowledgment of the junior officer's salute. Having been as drunk as Tangle the night before, only now did it dawn on Bishop that Thorton had been missing. It displeased him mightily. "You were absent without leave last night, Mr. Thorton."
"I beg your pardon, sir. I was under the impression that you consented to Captain Tangle's request for me to serve as his second. You did not refuse your permission."
"You are impertinent, Mr. Thorton. I shall make a note of it."
Tangle's aching head had no patience for this kind of talk. "Let's go over there, past the end of the quay where there are no buildings, and kill each other quietly," he said in French.
They all walked over. Heels rang hollowly on stone, then thudded onto grass. Weeds swished around their ankles. The three Englishmen momentarily envied Tangle the tall boots that kept his feet dry. None of them were in the habit of dueling and had not thought about proper footwear for the exercise.
Forsythe was worried. "Gentlemen, I implore you. Let us make apologies and settle this business without recourse to blood."
Having been trundled out of bed earlier than he wanted in a state somewhere between drunk and hungover, Bishop was not in a good mood. He was sober enough to apprehend the gravity of the situation and experience certain doubts, but too sulky, proud, and stubborn to apologize.
For his part, Tangle had been considering the matter with something approaching his usual intellect. Cottonmouth not withstanding, he decided make a fair speech. "I apologize for my behavior last night. I was drunk and spoke too freely."
Unfortunately, Tangle's apology made Bishop bold. "Ha! What did I say! You are a coward!"
"I can admit when I have done wrong. Are you big enough to do the same? If you are, we can part on friendly terms."
"I haven't done anything wrong!"
"It was wrong of you to insult me, as it was wrong of me to insult you. Come, let us apologize and be done with the matter."
Bishop roared, "Never! I demand satisfaction!"
"Sir, 'tis a fair apology. I beg you reconsider," Forsythe said anxiously.
"I will not!"
Thorton had never thought the corsair would apologize, not when Bishop had insulted him so thoroughly. He spoke up, "Let us settle the matter peacefully. The Turk has apologized."
Tangle spoke coolly, "Very well. The pistols, gentlemen." He had tried to apologize three times and been rebuffed. He would not apologize again.
With a heavy heart Thorton went over to Forsythe. The two conferred, inspected the weapons, then loaded them. Satisfied, they carried the pistols to their respective duelists. Bishop's face was florid and puffy with drink and insufficient sleep, Tangle's was thin and angular and his jaw was set in a stubborn line. Thorton and Forsythe moved onto a hillock overlooking the scene while Tangle and Bishop stepped up to face each other.
"Turn and count off ten paces, if you please, captains," Thorton said. He had never been a second in a duel before, but Perry had fought one and told him all about it. Tangle and Bishop gave each other final glares, then turned back to back. At Thorton's nudging, Forsythe began to count. Bishop and Tangle paced away from each other, then turned to face each other again. Tangle held his pistol casually by his side in his left hand.
Bishop raised his gun and squeezed the trigger as fast as he could. His ball went wide and buried itself in the mud and weeds. Forsythe and Thorton looked at each other; they had heard only one shot. Tangle was still standing there with his pistol hanging down by his side. As they watched, he slowly lifted it until he held it before his face. He sighted carefully down the barrel and used both hands to steady it. Bishop went white. He must stand and receive fire. Anything less would be cowardice. Sweat ran under his wig and into his collar. His adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed and his eyes were wide with fear. In spite of his terror, he neither ran nor spoke.
Tangle's gun pointed directly at his heart. "I suggest you accept my apology, Captain Bishop."
Bishop squeaked, "I accept!" His legs shook beneath him and the fear was plain in his face.
"Very well. I am satisfied." Tangle lowered the gun and discharged the ball harmlessly into the earth at his feet.
Bishop nearly fainted with relief. Forsythe hurried down the hill to be with Bishop, but Tangle walked up the hill to be with Thorton.
"Very gallant, sir. You're lucky he didn't hit you," Thorton congratulated him.
Tangle laughed a little at that. "I had no idea whether I could hit him, but I was pretty certain he could not hit me. He does not have the look of a man given to the shooting sports."
Just then figures came moving along the quay. The mist was brightening enough to show light blue uniforms with silver epaulettes on their left shoulders. A voice cried out in French, "Halt! You're all under arrest for the crime of dueling!"
Tangle grabbed Thorton's hand and pulled him down the far side of the hillock. "Run, Peter! I'll not go to jail and neither will you!"
They ran across the grass and among the trees. The ground turned soft and they went squishing along. Tangle's boots served him well in spite of his limp, but Thorton nearly lost his shoes. "Where are we going?" the lieutenant gasped out.
Tangle grinned and replied, "Back to the galley! Keep running!"
He kept the aurora of the rising sun on his right and eventually, after they had fouled themselves with mud and water up to the knees, saw the grey ghost of the Santa Teresa rising through the mist. The galley's bow pointed out to sea and her great stern lanthorn was a column of light in the mist.
Thorton suddenly perceived what Tangle had planned. "I can't go with you, Isam."
Tangle stopped and faced him. "Yes, you can. You'll be honored in Zokhara. You can live in peace, rise through the ranks, become a captain in your own right, and find a lover. It is your future, Peter."
Thorton trembled. He glanced back into the fog where the French were busy arresting Forsythe and Bishop. "Do you think they'll release them? If they don't, Perry will be the acting captain."
Tangle started limping again and pulled Thorton along. "Don't stop now. You don't know for sure the French didn't follow us. Or maybe ran around by the road. Let's get to the safety of the ship before we have this discussion."
That spurred Thorton to keep up with him. They scrambled aboard. The boatswain's pipe called, but they were on deck before the sideboys were lined up properly.
Tangle bellowed, "All hands on deck! Out oars! Get us off the beach, Mr. Foster!"
The pipes shrilled and the hands ran to their places. They had plenty of men and they rowed with a good will.
"Will you drop me at the Ajax?" Thorton asked.
They had gone to the poop deck. Tangle was grimacing about his leg. He could feel the blood trickling under the bandage and running down inside his new blue pantaloons and into his boot.
"I'm not going with you!" Thorton retorted.
"I've already made up my mind. I'm kidnapping you, Peter."
Tangle smiled warmly at him. "You are my prisoner. But yes, we will stop by the Ajax. You can fetch your dunnage."
Thorton fumed and paced the poop deck. The Terry crept around the point and came into the harbor. Tendrils of mist were still swathing the port as the sun's edge rose above the housetops. The frigate was riding at anchor. Perry was on the quarterdeck when they came along side.
Tangle ordered, "In port sweeps." The two vessels slowly drifted together. "Ahoy the Ajax! Is Bishop aboard?" Tangle called in English. The two vessels gently bumped together.
Perry called back, "He's been arrested. Forsythe too. Peter, are you all right?"
Before Thorton could answer, Tangle spoke. "We are. I'm leaving and I'm taking Thorton with me. Send his dunnage over."
Thorton grabbed Tangle's sleeve and begged, "Don't do this. Please. Don't. I am an Englishman. I can't go with you, I love Roger!"
There was only a few feet between the Terry's poop and the Ajax's quarterdeck. Perry was at the rail. Men on both vessels heard his confession. Tangle stared across at Perry. Perry stared at Thorton in horror. Thorton turned a brilliant shade of red as he realized how he'd betrayed himself. He wanted to sink like a stone to the bottom of the sea never to be seen again. He stood frozen in place.
Perry turned away and snapped an order to Midshipman Chambers. "Get Thorton's dunnage up."
Tangle ordered, "Grapples."
The two vessels clung together. A moment later Thorton's sea chest was being passed over. It thumped on the Terry's deck with a sound like finality. The tin with his good hat rattled down next to it.
"Good bye, Peter," Perry said. "Cast off grapples."
Thorton stared at his former friend. "Good bye, Roger."
"You just weren't cut out for the British navy," Perry said as the two vessels started drifting apart.
Thorton shook his head in wordless agreement.
Tangle ordered, "Fend off." Boathooks came out and pushed the two apart. "Out sweeps." The oars walked along the side of the Ajax for purchase, then Terry began to draw ahead of the anchored frigate.
"What a waste," Perry said to Chambers. "He could have been something." His words came faintly through the thinning fog.
Tangle spoke again. "Head for the towers. We're going to sea." The quartermaster nodded and repeated his orders to the helm.
Thorton turned away. He stared straight ahead and neither spoke nor moved. His shoes were full of water and mud. He felt like he was sinking. Around him the men moved on the poop deck and orders were passed. Most of them didn't speak English, but Foster did. He remained bland and avoided looking at Thorton. As the galley eased away, Tangle stepped up beside Thorton and put his hand on his shoulder.
"So that's my rival." Tangle's voice was matter of fact.
Thorton colored again. He pulled away from Tangle's hand. "He is not! By your leave, I will go to my cabin. Sir." He added the last word as a bitter afterthought.
Tangle let go of him. "All right. Stow your dunnage."
Thorton blindly descended the stairs to the weather deck. He avoided looking at anyone and started dragging his sea chest. A couple of men came forward to catch the other end and help him carry it. A proper sea chest, it was the size of a coffin. It contained his entire worldly possessions. He blundered into the sailing master's cabin and stowed it. He shut himself in the cabin and stayed there.