Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 26 : Sweet Fifteen

Duties finally done, Thorton paid a call on the young lieutenant. He found Maynard sitting up in his own bed and dreadfully bored.

"Will you help me go out on deck, Peter? I want to see the sun!"

"Of course, Archie." He felt rather like an indulgent older brother where Maynard was concerned. He supported Maynard on one side while the boy used a crutch on the other. They hobbled out.

"Oh, they're sewing! I want new clothes too!" Maynard exclaimed. "I need a lieutenant's uniform and my insignia!"

Thorton had no idea what the uniform of a Sallee rover should look like. Did they even wear uniforms? He could not help but imagine them as some sort of ragged, piratical lot. Yet that did not describe the men who were busy making decent shirts and pantaloons for themselves. Rough and foreign, perhaps, but not quite like the stories he had heard. He settled Maynard on an overturned washtub and mounted the steps to the poop. Tangle was always there when he wasn't in his cabin. 

Thorton was very crisp and correct as he saluted. "Begging your pardon, sir, but Mr. Maynard inquires about uniforms and insignia for the officers."

Tangle returned his salute. "French blue coats and pantaloons. You'll find it in the slop chest. Plain gold braid for a midshipman, braid and gold star for a lieutenant. A scimitar for a commander. Crossed scimitars for a captain. Brass buttons down the front, as many as you like. The coats and pants may be of any style you please. Any undress may be worn while working, but when battle stations are called, we enter port, receive guests, or engage in any other activity for which rank is important, you will wear your uniform coat with the insignia showing. By the way, give all the men a piece of the blue and white check to make a kerchief. My gift to them."

Thorton paid close attention. He was relieved to learn there was something approximating a uniform on board the vessel. He could not stand a slovenly appearance. "Aye aye, sir. And what of the crossed scimitars and star?" That was the insignia on Tangle's blue coat.

Tangle smiled. "Captain of Corsairs, of course."

"Aye aye, sir." He was not sure if that was equal to a commodore or an admiral but did not inquire further. It was enough to know that Tangle was an officer of high rank among the corsairs of the Barbary coast. 

Thorton and Maynard bought blue duck out of the slop chest for jackets. Thorton talked Maynard out of half the gold braid he wanted—the boy was quite pleased with his new rank and wanted to flaunt it. He even decided to make a short jacket like many of the rovers because he was enamored of all things Sallee. Thorton decided to make a short jacket because it would be cheaper. Thorton finished his jacket first and tried it on. Because he was lean for his height the hip-length jacket looked good him. He quickly learned a drawback: with no coattails to protect his backside the white breeches would get dirty quick. He made a pair of blue duck petticoat breeches. The loose fitting garment hung down to the top of his calves and looked like skirts at a distance, but required little fitting and gave freedom of movement. Maynard bought a straw hat and tied a scrap of the blue and white check around it for a ribbon. He must have petticoat breeches, too, so they made them up. He hopped around on his one good foot to show off his new clothes.

Maynard was unstoppable: he had go up to the foredeck. He was quite wedded to his position with the bow guns and regarded them as his own personal fiefdom. He had a knack for gunnery; he had quickly grasped the essentials of aiming, calculating nicely for the pressure of the winds and the rocking of the ship in the waves. He beamed at the men and they beamed back. Thorton chased after him, worrying that he was overdoing himself charging about on his crutches like that.

"Good to see you on your feet, sir. Begging your pardon, sir! A figure of speech, sir!" the gunner's mate greeted him. He was an Englishman who had stayed with them, and served as Maynard's intermediary with the men. 

Maynard waved it off. "No matter, Patterson." To Thorton he said, "I want all these men to have a cup of good wine in my honor tomorrow. None of that watered stuff. 'Tis my birthday and they will drink my health!"

Patterson translated. The men cheered and congratulated him.

"How old, sir?" Thorton asked.

"Fifteen." Maynard's voice cracked as he said it. He blushed with chagrin.

The men were coarse fellows made more brutish by their Spanish captivity, but they adored their boy officer. His blond curls shone in the sun, the ribbon fluttered from his straw hat, his brass buttons gleamed, and his coat was fresh and new. His courage and competence had been proven in a terrible contest, yet here he was, cheerfully up and about and not feeling sorry for himself and his lost leg. 

The gunner's mate said, "Three cheers for Lieutenant Maynard! Hip hip, huzzah!"

"Huzzah!" the men roared back.

 Thorton said, "It will be a pleasure to host a birthday party in your honor in the wardroom tomorrow night, Lt. Maynard."

Maynard grinned. "I'd like that!"

So now Thorton had to organize a party amongst his other duties, but he was happy to do it. First he put Maynard back to bed and scolded him for doing too much. Maynard protested, but he was tired and let Thorton win the scolding.

Thorton went next to the wardroom. He found Foster there. "Hey Foster, Maynard's birthday is tomorrow!"

"What? Jolly good. Are we going to celebrate?"

"Of course we are. I'm thinking about trying to buy one of the captain's lambs. Will you go in a share if everyone else does?"

"Of course I will. Rack of lamb is mighty tasty. Especially if we've got some mint jam to go along with it."

"I don't think there's any mint jam, but I'll negotiate with Tangle about the lamb if you'll get the rest of the wardroom to go shares. Ask the warrant officers if they want in too. If they buy in, they're invited to the party."

"Aye aye, sir."

Tangle was more than willing to let them have the lamb for such a good reason. It pleased him to honor Maynard and even more to see Thorton ingratiating himself with the men. The birthday party developed into a very grand affair. Marines in their new jackets and pantaloons served as footmen at the mess, and any man who thought he could cook contributed something to the feast.

In fact, by the time of the dinner party, all the crew had new clothes—even those who did not know Maynard had caught the fever and wanted to look sharp. The new clothes were not intended as uniforms (ordinary sailors and men-at-arms wore whatever they had), but given the limited sartorial opportunities aboard the vessel, they wound up looking uniform all the same. Some men wore pantaloons and others breeches, some wore culottes or dungarees, but they were all French blue duck. They wore white shirts and blue jackets in the evening coolness. Dark blue-checked kerchiefs were around their necks or on their heads. Parties of men kept trooping up to deliver presents. Maynard acquired a heap of things: scrimshaw and new shirts, a small wooden box artfully carved, a ditty bag, a pair of sandals made from rope and leather, and other such items as the men could make or loot from what was at hand. The officers gave him gifts as well, but they were hard pressed to find something suitable. Tangle gave him three oranges and several sticks of cinnamon, Thorton made him a nightshirt, Midshipman Kaashifa gave him a checkerboard with black and brown pieces, and Hizir sang to him in Swedish. Even Menéndez emerged from his self-imposed exile in the cockpit to join the festivities. 

Those who knew English sang, "For he's a jolly good fellow," then the rovers sang something in Arabic that was equally rousing. Thorton didn't understand a word of it but presumed it must be their version of a birthday song.

They had a baker but not the supplies necessary for a cake; the baker made a rum custard instead that was very well appreciated. They had good bottles of wine but Tangle and Thorton drank sparingly. Maynard got quite tipsy and sang in his cracking boy voice. Tangle had his ocarina and piped along—it was the only musical instrument on board. Song followed song and glass followed glass. When they got into a bawdy French tune of innumerable verses, Tangle put the ocarina into the capacious pocket of his Turkish coat and just listened.

Thorton supposed he ought to be scandalized that a boy of tender years knew such naughty verses, but Maynard was a battle-hardened veteran who had gone to sea at the tender age of nine. Thorton leaned back against his chair. He froze as his shoulder encountered Tangle's hand. The captain's blue-clad arm rested casually along the back of his chair. 

For a long time neither man said anything. Then Thorton said quietly enough only Tangle could hear it, "The party's too merry for me. They'll be in their cups tonight and holding their aching heads tomorrow. We need our sleep—we'll be doing half their work." 

Tangle replied equally quietly, "I'll walk you to your door." The door would hardly take a minute to reach, but Thorton said, "I'd like that." 

They rose and said their good nights. The others waved at them and begged them to stay, but privately they were happy that their senior officers were leaving. Now the party could really start. Once the captain and first lieutenant disappeared up the ladder they became extremely boisterous.

Thorton opened the door to the chartroom. His bunk was behind a curtain. "Do you want to come in for a moment?" he asked.

Tangle smiled and nodded. "That would be nice."

They stepped across the dark room and fumbled through the curtain into the tiny sleeping berth. A small square sidelight admitted the evening's dimness. Thorton waited breathlessly as Tangle stepped up close enough to him to feel his body's heat. When he bent his mouth to Thorton's, Thorton wrapped his arms around his neck and kissed him back.

It was very warm in the little room and their coats were quickly shed. Shirts were unbuttoned and hands slid across skin. Pants dropped and shoes were kicked aside. Thorton's heart was hammering violently in his chest. He clung hard to Tangle and kept kissing him. He was afraid to do anything else. Skin to skin contact made him groan, but he kept remembering what had happened to him so long ago. This was different, he wanted Tangle. But he was still afraid. He told himself that it was enough to simply slide his bare hands over another man's naked body and feel the strength of his arms and the broadness of his back, the curve of his rump, the stiffness of—No, it was not enough. He climbed into the bunk with Tangle.

Tangle kept his promise, a promise that Thorton had forgotten he had given. He proved that it was possible for two men to enjoy each other without resorting to buggery. Thorton was relieved to discover it. He had been afraid at first, but grew ardent when he realized that Tangle wouldn't hurt him. The pleasure was intense—for Thorton it was the first time that he had voluntarily become intimate with a man, and also the first time his partner was determined that he should enjoy himself. He fumbled back, trying to do everything that his bold Turkish lover did. Never had he felt such a fire in his flesh.

Eventually they slept together in the narrow bunk.

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