Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 30 : The Ajax

Perry stood on the damp sand in his silk stockings and frock coat with his tricorn hat firmly on his head. His hair was queued and tied with a black velvet ribbon. The white lace of his cravat spilled over the top of his waistcoat and a plain black solitaire went around his neck. Lace showed beneath his coat cuffs. His white facings were crisp and the gold lace and brass buttons gleamed in the sun. The bottom of his white waistcoat could be seen where the frock coat cut away. A gold watch chain ran across the front of the waistcoat. His breeches were perfectly blue and made of good stuff. His naval sword hung at his hip. He was as fine a figure of a British naval officer as anyone could hope to see. Thorton's heart did a slow roll when he saw him.

"Acting-captain Roger Perry of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax," he announced. "Permission to come aboard?"

 "Yes, of course. Pipe him aboard." He held up four fingers to indicate the correct number of sideboys. The ragtag Sallee marines quickly lined up and presented their muskets. 

In his cabin Tangle heard the drum and pipe. Recognizing that a captain was coming aboard, he bolted the rest of his breakfast and grabbed his good coat. He came out in time to see Perry climbing over the galiot's gunwale.

Perry and Thorton stared at one another without speaking. Their eyes raked one another's clothing to take in the changed circumstances. Slowly, as if in a dream, Thorton raised his hand and saluted. Perry returned it. 

Tangle stepped forward.

"Sir, I have the honor to present Lieutenant Roger Perry, acting captain of the Ajax," Thorton said. To Perry he said, "Captain Isam bin Hamet al-Tangueli, Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara."

"Welcome aboard, Captain Perry. Peace be up on you." Tangle's voice was bland. 

Perry stood to attention. "Thank you, sir." They were speaking English as the mutually intelligible language. "I have news to impart that I believe may be of considerable interest to Mr. Thorton and perhaps also to yourself."

Maynard came on deck just then, hopping along with his crutches and turban. He stopped short as he saw Perry. 

Perry stared at him. "Maynard! My god! You're alive! What, have you turned Turk too?"

"Aye, sir, and gladly. I'm a lieutenant now." He held up his hand to display the gold star on his cuff. He hobbled over to join them. He smiled brightly.

Perry turned on Thorton. "You told me he was dead!"

Thorton should have been embarrassed at having been caught in a lie, but he wasn't. He said softly, "He very nearly was. We thought it best that he pass out of the Service in an honorable fashion. Mr. Maynard has been keen in his new career."

Perry looked at the empty space below the bottom of Maynard's breeches. "What happened?"

"'Tis a long story," said Thorton.

"I want to hear it," said Perry.

So Tangle, Thorton, Perry, and Maynard went to the captain's cabin. They gathered around the table and coffee was served. The tale was told with interruptions and questions. They told Perry all of it—except for the part about Thorton sleeping with Tangle. Perry in turn told them that Bishop had had a heart attack and was laid up in a French hospital.

"He never should have gone dueling. The wine, his age, the excitement, the indignity of a French jail . . . . He collapsed. So, with the captain unfit for duty, I opened his secret orders." Perry's eyes danced wildly.

"Go on, you must tell us!" Thorton said.

"Oh, I was to look in on Isle Boeuf and if it was not in French hands, to take it." He pronounced the name properly thanks to his excellent command of French.

"Damn. Hard luck that. The French have got it," Maynard put in.

Perry's eyes twinkled. "There's more."


"The French have taken Barcelona."

"We knew that," Maynard put in.

"You did?"

They all nodded. "Well," said Perry a bit testily. "Did you know that England has declared war against Spain?"

Thorton and Maynard sat bolt upright around the table. "My God!" Thorton exclaimed. 

Tangle smiled and nodded, but his mind was busy calculating how that would affect his own plans.

Perry was explaining. "The taking of the Rebecca is the official cause, but it was not the first time the Spaniards have done something like that. You remember the Marigold?"

"I was on the Marigold," Thorton replied. "That's why I speak Spanish." 

"Oh, that's right. I remember. 'Twas long before we met." 

Thorton inclined his head in agreement, but it pained him that Perry had forgotten such an important thing.

Maynard and Tangle looked at Thorton in surprise. Tangle asked, "What is the Marigold?"

Perry explained, "A British supply ship. She was carrying victuals for the resupply of the Jamaica squadron. The Spaniards apprehended her in the West Indies and claimed she was carrying contraband. They made prisoners of the officers and pressed all the ordinary seamen."

"I was a foretop hand at the time, so I was pressed," Thorton explained.

Perry went on, "If you ask me, the real reason for the war is that the Spaniards have closed the Strait of Gibraltar to neutral traffic. You have to apply for a permit and they take the devil's own time about it and want a tremendous bribe to give you a passport. Our ships can't get in or out of the Mediterranean, and neither can anyone else. Gibraltar is in desperate want of supplies." 

Maynard bounced in his chair. "Are we going to run the blockade, rais?" He gave the Turk an eager look.

Tangle shook his head. "I plan to land at Tanguel before I make a decision. Maybe there will be a letter for me—I have relatives there. What about you, Captain Perry. What are your plans?"

"I'm to scout Isle Boeuf and make a report about it, then go to Plymouth for further orders. They'll put somebody else on as captain, I'm sure. Merely looking into Eel Buff is hardly exciting enough to get a promotion. I think I'll cruise the coast of Spain all the way to the French frontier, then run up to Correaux. I may be able to get some prizes. They won't know I'm there."

"Yes, they will. They've got signal lines from the French border to Madrid, and another one from Coruña to Madrid," Thorton replied. 

"How do you know that?"

"Spanish charts. You won't have the element of surprise," Thorton explained.

"Damme. Well, it is worth doing anyhow. The heavy fighting has been on the Mediterranean coast. They've moved most of their ships east. They've only got galley coastguards up here in the north. You couldn't ask for a sweeter set up for a little prize-taking." For a frigate the prospect of making some prizes of Spanish galleys and cabotage was very likely. 

"What about you? Any prizes?"

"Not since Correaux," Tangle replied.

"We could cruise together."

Tangle shook his head. "I'm going home. I want to see my wife and children. And I want to get my ship back."

Thorton winced at the mention of his wife. He kept silent. 

Perry reached across the table to grasp Thorton's hand. "I need you back, Peter. I need another lieutenant, a good one." 

Thorton made no answer. His head was spinning. 

Perry kept talking, "Bishop's gone. There will be no punishment. Maynard too. Forsythe's all right now that Bishop isn't scaring him silly. Chambers is a nincompoop. I need you both. You're the best officers the Ajax had. Come back."

Maynard frowned and set his jaw stubbornly. If he had been a little younger it would have qualified as a pout. Thorton stared at Perry's hand on his. 

Maynard spoke first. "I don't want to go back. I've made lieutenant and I like serving under Captain Tangle. I want to run the blockade and see Africa and the Mediterranean." 

Perry gave Maynard a beseeching look, but the boy-lieutenant folded his arms over his chest and stared him down. Perry looked to Tangle, but Tangle was not about to overrule one of his officers on such a personal matter, especially when it was better for him if Maynard stayed. Perry looked to Thorton.

"All right. I'll do it," Thorton said.

Tangle slammed his fist down. "No, you won't. I forbid it. I'll hold you here at pistol point if I have to." 

"I have a duty."

"Dammit! You converted. You submitted to Allah. And I believed you." His voice was bitter. He pushed his chair away from the table. "The only valid conversion is a freely made one, a conversion for no other reason than the love of God. A conversion made for gain is not a valid conversion. A conversion made to spite someone is even less valid. Tell me which it was, Thorton. Did you or did you not make a sincere conversion?"

"I . . . don't know."

Tangle slammed his fist again and the table jumped. "Damn you, Peter Thorton! Damn you for a perfidious Englishman."

Perry cleared his throat. "May I speak to Peter in private, sir?"

"Go. Use his cabin." Tangle gestured a dismissal.

Thorton and Perry rose and slipped over to the chartroom. Thorton pulled back the curtain and let Perry into his sleeping cabin.

"I wish I knew what was going through that head of yours," Perry said.

Thorton sat on the edge of the bunk. He wished he knew what was going through his head, too. Perry had thrown him over, Perry wanted him back. Bishop would flay him, Bishop was in hospital. He might escape a court martial after all. How could he explain himself? 

"Captain Tangle is my lover." It sounded quite peculiar to his ears.

Perry's jaw dropped. "What?" It was not a very charming or articulate thing to say, but Perry was at an unusual loss for words.

Thorton nodded. "I'm not really sure how it happened. But he is fond of me."

Perry sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. "Hell's bells. I never really thought you'd do it. I suppose I knew you would, some day, some how, but a Turk! He's practically a blackamoor."

"He's not. The galley sun has burned him dark. Besides, he's a normal male in all other regards. He's very brave and strong and fair. He's stern, but friendly, too. He's a fine officer. You would like him. I've learned a lot this month."

Perry listened to this. "His taking of the galleys was well-played, I give you that. I heard about it from some French officers. I don't doubt his tactical ability, just your sanity for getting mixed up with him. He's a pirate, Peter. A pirate!" 

"A privateer," Thorton corrected. "An honorable man. There are few better."

"Maybe we should entice him to enlist. I could use a midshipman like that," Perry remarked drily.

Thorton missed the joke and answered him seriously. "He wants to go home to his wife and children. And he is the Captain of the Corsairs of Zokhara. He won't give it up to be a junior officer in the English service."

"No, I didn't think so. And you, Peter Thorton, are having an affair with a married man. Shame on you! And shame on you for all the times you wagged your finger and clucked at me!" He wagged his finger and clucked at Thorton.

Thorton turned bright red. He wanted to sink through the decks and disappear into the bilge. "Well, that was before this happened. I promise I won't say anything about your affairs ever again."

Perry scuffed a shoe on the floor and tried to school his face to a neutral expression. "'Tis an awful vice, Peter. I feel sorry for you. I know you'd change it if you could. I don't know why God would do such a thing to a man. It must be the Devil's work."

Thorton stiffened. "You don't know anything about me. I haven't committed the unnatural sin you allude to, either, so I'd appreciate it if you'd wipe that filthy thought from your mind!" 

"You haven't?"

"I have not," Thorton said very firmly. "We are . . . ." He searched for words to describe it. "Ardent friends. I cannot feel there has been any dishonor in our conduct. Did not Achilles and Patroclus cleave to each other? They loved each other and nobody thought the less of them." 

"That was in ancient times before our Lord Jesus Christ came to lead us out of sin."

"I have read my Bible, Perry. Christ does not mention the subject. But he does mention adultery. And his response to the people who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery was, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' If God forgives all sins, then he forgives any I might have committed. I should not be judged more harshly than an adulteress."

"Well, you are an adulterer."

Thorton laughed suddenly. "No, I'm Muslim now. Muslim men are allowed more than one wife, provided they treat them all fairly and can support them. The Qur'an does not mention male lovers, but it does mention dealings with women to whom one is not married. In short, fornication is not a mortal sin. I'm not sure that what we do qualifies as 'fornication' anyhow."

Perry was mystified. "How could it not?" 

"Well, it involves a great deal of kissing and hugging, which is not fornication," Thorton said with a blush.

"That's true. Kissing and hugging are not sins, although they certainly pave the way for sin."

"So . . . generally speaking, if done passionately enough, they are . . . 'enough.'" Thorton was bright red.

Perry considered that. He held his hat in his hands and worried the cockade. "You know people will think you're doing something else. They won't believe you. I do, because I know you, but they won't. The Admiralty won't."

"I don't want to go back, Roger."

"But you said you would!"

"I thought it was my duty, but I am happy here. I didn't even know it until we talked and I realized how different things are for me now. Honor, love, happiness. I have them now, Perry."

"Robbery and kidnapping. You left those out, Peter. Kidnapping Christian souls and selling them into slavery if they can't pay the ransom. That's what corsairs do, and your lover is the king of them!"

"The English do the same to the Africans, but with no chance of ransom. They are bound into servitude forever."

"That is not the same thing. Blacks are inferior people. Without the guidance of civilized men they consort themselves as animals. They have no culture but what we give them. Therefore when we enslave them, we improve their condition and that pleases God. But we are a civilized people, so it degrades us to be made slaves by a people inferior to ourselves."

Thorton had served with men of many colors, races, nations, and religions in the past month. His jaw tightened. "I don't think the color of a man's skin determines his qualifications. Isam is proof of that."

"You said yourself 'twas not his natural color."

"Men on this vessel are judged by their merits. Complexion never enters in. Ability, courage, intelligence, fortitude, honor—these are the things that matter here."

"It sounds very noble, I admit it. But it doesn't change things. Your paragon is a robber at sea and a despoiler of villages. And to what purpose? Profit! Profit and nothing more. He's not even trying to win a kingdom for himself. If the damn rovers ever tried to take and hold a piece of land, then I could countenance it. But their holy war is only an excuse to pillage. Look at the Great Moor beside you. That's what they're generally like. Sloppy, cullion-faced, impious thieves."

Thorton's face fell. "I admit that bothers me. But I have decided that when we reach Sallee I will enlist in the Sallee navy. Then it will be my duty to guard against Spanish raids. That's an honorable thing."

Perry gave him a disgusted look. "That's your ambition? To be the coastguard of a thieving nation? The Spaniards are right to raid them. If such a plague of vipers molested England, we'd do the same. We did it to the French. One day Christendom will unite against thieves and robbers and make war on them instead of each other."

Thorton was silent for a long time. Presently he said, "No doubt you are right. But I know that England will never change. She can never be any better than she is. Look at our own navy. Corrupt, mediocre, and moribund. Influence determines the promotions, not merit. The Spaniards have been molesting our shipping for years and what did we do about it? 'Tis only now that our Mediterranean trade is interrupted that we are suddenly concerned about the treatment of the Rebecca and the Marigold and all the others. Maybe the men of the south have a chance we pale skinned races don't. They are willing to take the risk. We aren't."

"You're a fool. Your brain is making excuses to justify your prick. Or whatever part you're sharing with the pirate."

Thorton set his jaw. "I never talked about your mistresses like that. Don't talk about my lover that way."

Perry sighed. "Peter, I'm trying to get you to come to your senses. I admit I've committed some peccadilloes of my own, but not on such a grand scale! I'll do what I can to keep you out of trouble. I'm sure I can fix up the reports to make it all right. I'll report what Tangle said, that he carried you off by force. If we take some prizes it really won't matter what you've done. Success justifies everything."


"If you won't come back, I must report you for desertion. If you're ever caught, they'll kill you. You know the Articles of War."

Thorton paled. "I do. But I've violated the very first. It requires all officers to establish the Church of England and see that its rites are followed. Now that I have converted to Islam, how could I return?"

"Then you must resign. Cite religion if you must."

Thorton rubbed a hand over his face, then nodded shortly. He went to the chartroom desk and trimmed a quill. He began to write, I have the honor of addressing. . . His pen continued scratching and dipping in the ink, . . . and since being convinced that Islam has the most correct understanding of the commandment, "Thou shalt have no other god before Me," I cannot support the Trinity, nor any Christian sect which promotes the Divinity of Jesus and the Holy Ghost . . . . He laid down his quill and reread the letter. Yes, it said what it needed to be said. He finished it, Therefore I must respectfully tender my resignation from the naval Service. He signed it. He pushed the paper over for Perry to read.

"That will do. Copy it into your book and let me have it. I'll write my acceptance."

That was the end of the discussion and their friendship. Perry's gig carried him back to the Ajax. Thorton watched him climb aboard the frigate to the sound of the drum and boatswain's whistle. He finally turned back. When he let himself into the Tangle's cabin, he found the corsair sitting in his chair and brooding. He glanced up when Thorton came in.


Thorton bowed deeply in the Muslim way with his hand pressed to his forehead to show great respect. "I resigned my commission. I'm staying with you."

A great smile broke across Tangle's face. "Excellent. I'm glad to hear it. Come join me in a cup of wine. We'll celebrate."

"'Tis a not a thing to celebrate," Thorton replied with great feeling.

Tangle stared at him for a long moment. Then he held out his arm. "Then come and sit with me, Peter, because I am glad to have you by my side."

Thorton settled in the circle of his arm. He leaned against the man who was his lover, captain, and kidnapper. The tumult in his heart was hard to bear, but bear it he must. "Tell me about your wife. Is she fat and ugly?"

"Not at all. Jamila is young and beautiful and clever. She tried to ransom me. I know, because they beat me for it. She sent her brother, Shakil, with two thousand reales, but they refused to accept it and raised the ransom to three thousand. She raised the money and Shakil came again. Again they refused him and demanded five. They thrashed me within an inch of my life that time. It took my family a long time to raise five thousand reales, but they did. The Spaniards refused them outright. For three days I was chained to the deck, beaten, whipped, starved, and parched, a target for any assault and insult they cared to heap on me. I thought I was going to die, but they doused me with water, put some bread soaked in wine in my mouth, and dragged me back to my bench." 

Thorton listened. "Did your wife and her brother see you like that?"

"No. They had to work through agents. It was too dangerous. They don't know what happened to me. I won't tell them, either. Shakil is a good man and it would bother him. My wife . . . doesn't need to know. It would trouble her too much."

Thorton had no family. He could not imagine anyone being troubled over his fate. "They must love you," he said at last.

Tangle smiled. "They do. Shakil is like my own brother. He gives much and asks little. If he ever asked me a favor, I would not refuse him, no matter what it was. Jamila is like no other woman in the world. She is as kind and wise as she is beautiful. You will like them."

But would they like Thorton? He doubted it. He dreaded arriving in Sallee as much as Tangle yearned for it. Once he had longed for a man who would understand his secret desires. Now he longed for an understanding man who was also a bachelor. The word 'adulterer' did not lie easily on his conscience. 

He sighed. "If you say so." 

No comments:

Post a Comment