Friday, July 17, 2009
Chapter 25 : The Eel's Gauntlet
The sun rose and burned the fog away, developing into a very warm spring day. Thorton lay on his bunk dressed in nothing but his drawers and a thin sleeveless jersey. He stared at the planks over his head and brooded. Every misstep of his past was laid clear to him. He should have been stronger and wiser. He should have shut his mouth more frequently. He had been lacking in fortitude and grace.
His first mistake had been fooling around with Charlie Scruggs when they were both lads. If it hadn't been for that, he would have never run away to sea. He had been an intelligent youth and he had soon learned to handle the dowdy little schooner he'd signed onto. He did that for two years, then got caught by the pressgang while drunk one night. He'd stayed away from strong drink ever since. He had been pressed into a victualing ship, the Marigold. He was young and fair and there had been a particularly cruel—no, he would not think of that. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean without their bawds, and that man (he would not even name him to himself) and his friends—no. He must turn his mind to something else. He viewed his body from a distant vantage as if it were any other piece of dunnage and a not particularly important piece at that.
Yes, the Marigold. Bad luck and worse to him. They'd been captured by a Spanish ship, their cargo declared contraband, and all the ordinary sailors, himself included, pressed into the Spanish navy. He'd learned Spanish the hard way. After four years he had escaped back to England, which sounded heroic, but all it really meant was that he'd jumped over board and swum to an French merchantman in Sint Maarten's harbor. He'd served with the French sloop for some months, finally making his way to Jersey, and from there returning to the English navy to become a midshipman. Finally he got his promotion to lieutenant, just in time for peace to be declared. He'd met Roger Perry along the way, who had become his best and only friend.
And Perry had put him off the Ajax. Thorton knew Perry had done it to save him (or maybe it was to save himself) after he had blurted out such a ruinous thing, but it rankled all the same. Thorton could have been court-martialed for such an indiscreet remark and Perry along with him. They'd bunked together from Pool to Brest; who would believe that nothing had happened? Not after that suspicion had been raised. Perry had spurned him to save the both of them.
"He could have kissed me properly so that at least we'd be guilty of something. Surely it is better to be hanged as a wolf than a lamb," Thorton grumbled. "How do you defend yourself from a suspicion? No matter how many times you say nothing happened, no one will believe you. How much easier to say, 'We kissed, and that was all. Even Jesus kissed John. There is no sin in it.' There was certainly no sin in the way he kissed me, damn him."
He sighed. Now he was a deserter from the British navy. If he was caught, he'd be hanged. The heady triumph over four Spanish galleys would mean nothing to the Admiralty; they would find him derelict in his duty. He should not have given up command to Tangle. Just because the French had ruled him never to have been the master of the San Bartolomeo did not mean that the Admiralty would see it that way. He was complicit in mutiny. And now he had run off with the chief of the mutineers himself. He had not gone willingly, but he had gone all the same.
A knock sounded at the door. "What is it?" he called in Spanish.
"Captain Tangle wants you in his cabin, sir," Foster called.
"Send the captain my compliments, but his passenger is staying right where he is."
A minute later a more authoritative knock rapped against his door.
"What?" he barked.
The door opened and Tangle stuck his head in. A captain had the right to put his head in anywhere he pleased on his ship. He saw Thorton lying on his back on the bunk and came in, shutting the door behind him. "What's this, Lt. Thorton?"
"I'm not a lieutenant anymore. I'm a passenger." It felt wonderfully wicked and selfish to lie there in the presence of the captain. He was courting the corsair's temper, but he didn't care. He might even like to be upbraided or beaten for his insolence—he was in that bad a humor.
Tangle could not glare intimidatingly while stooping under the beams, so he pulled the chair out from the built-in desk and sat on it. That allowed him to hold his head and shoulders erect. He folded his arms over his chest and stared at the recalcitrant lieutenant. Thorton felt uneasy. Tangle said nothing, merely waited. Thorton had seen him waiting before. His expression was stern but silent. Under the pressure of that gaze, Thorton had to say and do something. He sat up.
"Uh, I'm not feeling well, sir," he said in an apologetic tone.
"Maynard's stump is healing, but he's still weak. He's not fit for duty. I need another lieutenant. A first lieutenant. A damned good first lieutenant. We have to run the gauntlet to Eel Buff."
Thorton's brain was starting to absorb nautical matters whether he willed it or not. "Eel Buff, sir?"
"I think you know it, lieutenant," Tangle said drily. "An island about a hundred and fifty miles off the northwest coat of Spain. A veritable den of pirates, nominally under French control. They took it from Spain—one of their few successes. A perfect base from which to raid Spanish shipping. Does that sound familiar to you?"
Thorton admitted that it did. "Why are we going there, sir?"
"Because we've got a French letter of marque and passport as well as new Sallee papers issued by Consul Fudaid. As long as Eel Buff is in French or piratical hands, we can take on supplies there. If the weather cooperates, we can run south past Spain and make landfall at Tanguel in Africa."
Thorton sat up and crossed his legs like a Turk. He was considering the nautical situation but not with his usual sharpness. He still had a great empty hollow in the pit of his stomach. His eyes were sad and far away. Tangle watched. It irked him that Thorton was mooning over Perry like that. In his own mind Tangle was certain that Thorton had rebuffed the his advances because he preferred Perry, no matter what excuses he made. It galled Tangle to come off second best in any contest, but he was big enough to let Thorton alone about it. For now. But he was also the captain and he would not allow his most valuable officer to waste himself like this.
He spoke sharply. "You are first lieutenant of the Sallee rover Santa Teresa de Ávila whether you like it or not. You are free to consider yourself pressed into Sallee service against your will if you like, but you will work." Tangle rose. "I have been too kind and indulgent with you, Mr. Thorton, and you have given me cause to regret it. You will do your duty or I will have you flogged."
Thorton winced. "Aye aye, sir. May I look in on Lt. Maynard first, sir?"
Tangle's dark eyes flicked over him. "No, you may not. It is not the ship's fault that you have been sulking in your berth all morning. I will not excuse you from your required duties to make a social call. You should have seen Lt. Maynard when you were off watch."
Thorton was crestfallen. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Just so. Plot me a course for Eel Buff."
"Aye aye, sir."
Tangle stepped out and shut the door with a very firm thump.
Thorton brooded as he dug in his sea chest for his clothes. Tangle was treating him with the professional exactness he accorded all the officers and hands. Not until he was treated the same as the others did Thorton realize how very much he'd been in Tangle's good graces before. Now that he had lost the favor he hadn't known he'd had, he was melancholy. Depression piled on depression. He sat at the chart desk and started his calculations. He found it hard to concentrate and it took a long time to mope his way through them.
He stared at the charts, then brightened because he realized he had something very good indeed. He had Spanish charts. He ran his finger over the ink of the northern coast of Spain. There were the ordinary ports and naval ports marked, not to mention, the Arsenal at Coruña. And the signal towers . . . . He dug through the papers and came up with the Spanish signal book. That was an excellent prize! He must memorize it. He opened it and studied the private signals and other useful items. Invigorated by this discovery, he plotted the desired course, then put his head out.
Midshipman Kaashifa appeared. He was one of the Moors only recently taken into the galleys and still had a good physique. "Inform Captain Tangle that his sailing master has something to show him, if he is at leisure."
Kaashifa nodded and hurried to the poop deck.
Tangle knew Thorton would not call him for a trivial reason, but he was not ready to give in and be reconciled. He would appear spineless if he allowed the moody Englishman back into his good graces too easily. He waited a full twenty minutes.
Hizir had the conn, so Tangle took a stroll about the ship and inspected her and the men. Many of them he did not know personally, so he stopped to smile and chat with them, asking their names and occupations. They touched their foreheads respectfully and murmured, "Salaam, rais." It felt good to speak Arabic openly and freely, so he chatted with them about their duties, the ship, the weather, and other items of personal interest.
The Terry was tight and dry below and he was as pleased with her. The falling antenna had damaged her weather deck, but fortunately, she was a very old vessel with a double deck in the old style. The watertight concave deck supported a false deck that provided a level surface to work the guns. Some of her weather planks had been stove in, but she had taken little damage to the concave deck beneath. She was a deeper in draft and carried somewhat larger sails than an ordinary galley, too. In consequence, she was more seaworthy and weatherly than the Bart in spite of being shorter. She could carry more stores. If he had had enough firewood and food, he could have stayed at sea for four or five weeks, instead of the more usual two to three weeks for a galley. In other words, she was a galiot.
Finally he stopped by the chartroom. He rapped firmly and Thorton knew it was him by the authoritativeness of his knock.
"Enter," he called. He rose from his chair to meet the man. Tangle ducked through the door and stood crouched under the beams. The chartroom ceiling was the deck of the poop, and it was exactly six feet above the floor. Even in his bare feet Tangle could not stand up straight.
The corsair returned Thorton's salute. "You had something you wanted to show me?"
Thorton showed him the map of Spain. "Look at this."
Tangle peered at the symbol Thorton showed him. "Yes?" he asked, not grasping what the thing was.
Thorton pointed. "It is the Spanish mark for a signal tower. Here at La Coruña, sir."
"Yes, they often have signal towers in the harbor. It is easier and quicker than trying to run boats back and forth with dispatches for routine matters."
Thorton nodded. "Notice this."
Tangle looked. Another signal tower was half an inch away from the first. His eyes followed Thorton's finger to the next symbol. And the next, and the next, and the next, until his eyes walked all the way to the center of the country.
"By Allah! They've built a line of signal towers all the way to Madrid!"
Thorton walked his fingers to the northeast corner of the squarish Iberian peninsula. "Barcelona, too. But not their southern shores. Madrid knows what happens on their northern coasts in a matter of hours."
Tangle apprehended the usefulness of such a system immediately. He sat down in the only chair. "But why none to the southern coasts? We harry them immensely."
Thorton replied, "I doubt they fear an invasion by the Sallee rovers. What can you do but raid their coasts and inconvenience their shipping? They are at war with France, a war in which real gains in power and territory might be won or lost. The rovers are gnats biting at their rumps while the bulls charge each other."
Tangle, who had considered himself a very great corsair of a very great naval power, suddenly had his perspective dwindle. "Is there a chart of the Sallee coast?"
Thorton shuffled papers and found it. There on the shores of the Sallee Republic were the cities of Tanger and Sebta, Abizir and Djo, all in Spanish hands. Tangle sat back in his chair. He was greatly dissatisfied with the change of view, but for Thorton it was nothing new and he did not apprehend the cause of the captain's silence. The English lieutenant continued the thought that he had hatched.
"Sir, if we disguise ourselves with Spanish uniforms, we could creep close enough to deliver a false message. We could tell them, 'Tangle in San Bartolomeo on course for England. Last seen 47 N 4 W."
Tangle smiled. "You're devious, Peter. I like that. But no, it is too dangerous. We'd have to get close to ship or shore to send that message. I'd rather head straight ahead to Eel Buff. The Bay of Biscay is large. Hopefully we will not meet a Spanish patrol, but if we do, we have plenty of room to run. I like the Terry better than the Bart. If we get a gale she will handle it better. Mind you, I don't care to ride a hurricane with her, but I feel secure enough to stay off the coast."
"Very well, sir."
Tangle put the matter of Spanish superiority from his mind. He had something of more immediate interest to consider: the companionable intimacy had returned. He liked Thorton this way, relaxed and unguarded and speaking to him freely about matters of mutual concern. He longed to reach out and touch the man, but he knew it was too early to renew his suit. He must feign nonchalance. He racked his brain for a topic of conversation that would not trouble his mind or Thorton's.
"How did you come to be a sailor if you were intended for a minister?" he inquired. He knew that much at least about the man.
Thorton straightened up. In his shoes his blond hair just brushed the deckhead. His hat hung on a hook on the wall nearby. Tangle had the only seat.
"Oh." He blushed. He had never ever told anyone how he had come to run away to sea, but strange as it was, he felt Tangle was a trustworthy confidant. He fidgeted, then admitted, "My stepfather's housekeeper caught Charlie Scruggs and me fondling each other in the parlor one day. She started shrieking like all the devils in Hell were loose. We ran out of there. We ran all the way to the waterfront and I signed on with the first vessel that would have me. I've never been back."
"That's the terrible dark secret you've been keeping all these years? That you fondled another boy, you vile libertine!" Tangle laughed. He couldn't help it. He had been more than two years in the cruel clutches of a Spanish galley, and Thorton's moment terrible consisted of boyish antics? He laughed and laughed. He knew he was laughing too much, but thinking that only made him laugh again.
Thorton cringed at the laughter. Then he grew annoyed, then positively indignant. "'Tis no jest! My stepfather would have taken his belt to my backside if he'd caught me!"
Tangle laughed even louder. "A belt!" he gasped. His back was scarred by many floggings. "You're afraid of a belt? What? Do you think he'll turn you over his knee and spank you if you go home now?"
Thorton scowled. "You don't have to laugh so much."
Tangle tried to control himself. He gulped in a great breath and held it, but then he looked at Thorton's face and started laughing again.
"Stop it! Just stop it!"
Tangle tried again. "All right. I'm stopping." He grinned wildly for no good reason and his brown eyes sparkled.
Thorton's pride was wounded. He felt he must do something to even the matter to his satisfaction. He asked slyly, "Are you ticklish?"
"I'm very ticklish," Tangle replied. Then he shot Thorton a look. "Oh, no, you don't!"
Thorton said very seriously, "Lt. Thorton would never lay hands on his captain, sir." Tangle relaxed. No. Of course not. This was Lieutenant Peter Thorton, prim and proper Englishman. Thorton said, "But Peter might tickle Isam."
He didn't know why he did it, but he did it. His hand darted to the captain's ribs. Tangle yelped and squirmed. He was at a disadvantage with his bandaged leg; but even so he leaped to his feet, smacking his head on the beam above and nearly falling on his butt. The initiative lay with Thorton and he used it to tickle the captain madly in both sets of ribs. Tangle got trapped in a corner. He whimpered and laughed as he tried to protect himself.
"Mercy! Quarter! Enough, oh Peter, enough!"
Thorton stopped. There was a moment of flushed excitement when he realized that the mighty corsair had yielded to him. He stared at the man and Tangle caught his breath. The moment grew taut with meaning. Victory had rarely belonged to Thorton and it excited him. He wanted to—well, he was not sure exactly what he wanted to do. He had the urge to do something bold, like sling the rover over his shoulder and carrying him off, but that was hardly practical. Tangle was much too big for that, and even if he did, where would he take him?
Thorton's heart pounded in his throat as he stepped in close and pressed his mouth slowly and experimentally against Tangle's. He was giddy. Who was Peter Thorton? What had happened to that frightened, repressed boy that had been glad to don the King's coat and wrap himself in the protective cocoon of protocol and etiquette, duty and danger that was naval service?
He was that man no longer. He'd lost the right to wear the uniform and it grieved him. He'd lost his best friend. He'd lost his reputation. What did he have left? Nothing. Who was he, if he was not who he used to be? He didn't know. He pulled back. Confusion was written in his face. Always someone else had told him his place. Never had he been allowed to decide for himself who he was and where he belonged.
Tangle's heart heeled heavily to starboard, then rolled around the other way and shipped water over the larboard rail. He was sinking in place. He wanted to pull up anchor and sail away, but his heart was snagged on something and he couldn't get it loose. He was in love. Of all the horrible inconvenient things that could have happened to a newly liberated galleyslave, it was hard to imagine anything worse, short of being returned to the captivity. He didn't need or want to be in love. He had a wife and family and he was going home to them.
"Your course, Mr. Thorton?" Tangle's baritone was unsteady.
Thorton blinked. Oh, he meant the charts. He turned to them. The two men sought refuge in the comforting armor of naval duty. Thorton laid out the course. Tangle nodded and answered him. Their voices seemed strangely far away.
When Tangle left Thorton put away his papers and moped. Everything had changed. Anything was possible. He was a pirate now. His heart hammered and he felt the heat stirring in his veins. Why hold back? He had nothing left to lose. But still he held onto—something. Habit, if nothing else. He thought about Perry. How he yearned to lay with him and press him skin to skin! He would have let Perry do whatever he wanted, if only he had wanted to do it. But he didn't.. Tangled wanted Thorton and would have gladly done what Perry would not, but Thorton didn't want Tangle. Or more correctly, he didn't want to want Tangle. His face reddened and he buried it in his arms on the table.
The bold rover had kissed him. That made him skittish. He would have found it easier to kiss a pale-faced clerk, or maybe even a ruddy carpenter's mate. Someone who was not so tall and dark and unnerving as the Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara. Yet how good it felt to kiss a man and feel him kissing back!
Thorton rubbed a hand over his inflamed face. Maybe when he got to shore he should spend some of his prize money and pay a whore to let him do as he pleased. That was what other randy sailors did. There must be a male whore somewhere. He groaned as he realized how low he was sinking. But Tangle had put lustful thoughts into his head and nothing would dislodge them.