Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 32 : The Sea Leopard

The wind rose and blew a half-gale from out of the northwest. The Terry shipped water and had to be pumped, but compared to the Bart, she was as buoyant as a cork in a washtub. The wind blew itself out in the wee hours. When dawn lightened the sky the coast of Africa was a large smudge on the horizon. At noon Thorton shot the sun. Tangle did not even wait for him to plot a course; once he knew his latitude he knew exactly where he was and adjusted his course southwards. He soon spotted landmarks that he knew. "We'll be in Tanguel by sunset!" he said joyously.

It was a glorious day, warm and windy, and perfect for a victorious corsair to stand dreaming about prize money waiting for him ashore. Thorton was gaining a first hand appreciation for what a pest Tangle had been to the Spaniards. If the Turk could do what he did with a mere galiot, how much more damage could he do with a xebec and a pack of seawolves running with him? An empire lived by its ships; they brought her the materials she needed to build her machines of war and feed her populace while pampering her aristocrats with the luxuries they craved.

Thorton and Tangle were on the poop deck as usual. Tangle had unbuttoned his new linen shirt to the waist and it blew open to show his muscular chest. His body hair was growing to form swirls on his chest with a line leading to his waist. With sufficient food and rest and he was filling out well. He was a manly specimen with little trace of Spanish captivity left upon his skin, and he was in an expansive mood, regaling them with tales of his exploits.

Thorton found the sight of the captain's undress terribly distracting, so he kept peering through his spyglass at the coast of a continent he had never seen before. Part of him was listening; he was absorbing knowledge of xebec tactics which he was certain would prove useful in the course of his career. But it left him feeling uncomfortable as well. Prizes for profit, that's what Tangle was talking about. There was a state of war between Spain and the Sallee Republic but was it really anything more than waving a flag over piracy? That's what the European powers called it. Larceny, with a shiny veneer of religion and patriotism.

Thorton was dressed in his jacket and petticoat breeches. The loose pants were cooler than ordinary breeches. The fourth time he slapped his hand against his head to keep the straw hat in place he was too late. The hat blew across the poop deck, dodged all hands grabbing for it, and blew over the lee rail. His blond hair was left exposed to shine in the golden sun. He took his dark blue-checked kerchief out of his pocket and tied it over his head to keep his brains from broiling. 

"A sail! Fine on the starboard bow!" 

They all moved to the windward side to have a look. The vessel was hull down and too far away to make out more than a bit of white that might not be a wave.

"What kind?"

"Xebec!" the lookout replied.

Thorton's attention sharpened. He'd heard enough about them by now to be quite eager to see one at last. Glasses clapped more eagerly to eyes. Eventually they saw her rising above the waves. She was traveling an oblique course that would cause their paths to cross, but who would cross whose wake was not yet certain. Her big lateens were much larger than those on the Terry. Her mainmast was straight enough, but her foremast leaned toward the prow and her mizzenmast leaned aft. Thorton had never seen such a cockamamie contraption.

"What on earth is wrong with her?" he exclaimed.

Tangle gave him a curious look. "What do you mean?"

"Look at how crazy her masts are! She looks like a drunk put her together."

Tangle laughed out loud and so did the other men on the poop deck. "They're supposed to rake like that. And here I thought you had noticed something was wrong with her mainsail." 

Thorton looked around at the grinning men. He harbored a suspicion they were amusing themselves at his expense. "What's wrong with her mains'l?" he asked suspiciously. 

"Too small. If you laid it down on deck, it wouldn't reach from her lazyboard to her prow," Tangle pointed out.

"What's a lazyboard?"

"A grated platform that extends aft the transom. It provides footing for the sailors working the mizzen."

Thorton looked where their poop ended at the tafferel and wondered why you'd need anything aft the transom. He studied the newcomer and measured her main antenna against her deck. "I see what you say. But neither does ours. And why would you want it to anyhow?"

"We're a galiot. Our sails are bigger than a galley because our hull is a little deeper and broader, but not by much. With a xebec we belay the foresail well forward on her prow and her mizzensail well aft on the boom-kin. We get a good spread of canvas on her; twice as much as a European vessel of the same size. We can do that because she's deep enough to bite and beamy amidship, but her floor is narrow and raked so she's fast. She's stable enough to carry broadside guns. She's like a fast, agile frigate. Yon xebec has got a timid master or a man who doesn't know how to sail." His brow knit in concentration as he put the glass back to his eye.

Thorton studied the vessel through his own glass. She was coming at an angle and very full of wind. She was blistering along at an excellent rate of speed —fast enough to have a creamy white bow wave giving her a mustache that was visible even at this distance. She was enlarging noticeably as she approached. A blue flag with something yellow on it was snapping from her flagstaff and a narrow private commission pennant was streaming from her masthead. She looked a very brave sight in spite of Tangle's criticism.

"By Allah! The Sea Leopard!" The sight of his own vessel flying towards them was astonishing beyond belief. "It must be Kasim." A moment later he erupted in fury. "What in the Hell did he do to my ship!"

"Who is Kasim?"

"My brother-in-law. A disagreeable fellow who fancies himself a corsair, the damned butcher. That's what he was, a butcher, before I married his sister. He made a few cruises with me, but he wasn't the sort of man I wanted. He only sailed when he needed money to pay his debts and I wouldn't let my wife lend it to him. He cut down the main antenna, the rat bastard! I had seven thousand square feet of sail in that big lateen! Damn him for a cheapskate and a coward! He sails like a Spaniard!" He writhed in fury.

Thorton lowered his glass and stared speechlessly at the rover. He must not have heard him right. "Did you say seven thousand in the mainsail, sir? Surely you meant seven thousand all told."

"Aye, that I did. Seven thousand in the mainsail. He can't have more than five thousand in that pitiful little thing. She's slow." Tangle was grieving like he'd had his arm cut off.

Thorton swiftly worked the numbers in his head and determined that the Santa Teresa's mainsail was about thirty-six hundred square feet. A lateen sail was an isosceles right triangle, so its dimensions were easily worked out with the Pythagorean theorem. The Indiaman, hulking great beast that she was, carried about as much sail as the slim little xebec but had more than four times the volume of hull. The xebec was scooning along at ten or eleven knots. That was slow?! 

"Good god, you'd dismast yourself or capsize!" 

Tangle grinned broadly at him. "Not with a lateen rig. But yes, I advise you to keep to the windward rail when we are flying. Two hundred men on the high side is a necessary counterbalance."

Thorton thought Tangle might be exaggerating, but he'd already experienced the man's daredevil tactics and was obliged to think that he might be serious. 

He raised his glass and studied the xebec again—there on the foredeck was something blue and gold. As he watched, the blur of color resolved itself into the form of a woman with her silks blowing about her. A sky blue veil was fastened to her head with a cap of gold coins and ornaments. The delicate piece of silk could not confine her hair and brown curls blew wildly with it. Her sky blue gown had bell-shaped sleeves that billowed and fluttered. They winked in the light, proving that they too were ornamented with gold. The skirt blew around her legs. It was full slit up the sides so that it streamed out nearly horizontal and snapped and fluttered. Her legs were clad in matching blue pantaloons. Her hands carried rings of gold, her wrists wore bracelets of gold, her skirt was spangled with gold. She stood in front of the rembate with her hand upon the stem-post for support. Her other hand she held to her forehead to shield her eyes as she searched the galiot.

Tangle lowered his glass. He could not speak.

"What? Who is it?" Thorton demanded.

"My wife," Tangle replied. A smile grew on his face as he gazed at the lovely apparition. "Jamila bint Nakih, the most beautiful woman in the world." 

Thorton was appalled to see the audacious corsair mooning over a woman. His wife, no less! Maybe if she had been an opera singer or countess or something equally impossible he could understand it. But a wife? Thorton lifted his glass and gazed at the woman. She must be beautiful, he supposed, although from this distance it was impossible to judge her features.

The xebec coursed across their bow and white plumes of spray were thrown up as she cut through the waves. Tangle came to life. "Heave to! Prepare to render honors!"

"What honors, sir?" Midshipman Kaashifa asked.

"The honors due the wife of the Captain of Corsairs of Zokhara, dammit! I need my coat and turban!"

The word was passed and the items supplied. Tangle put his turban on and donned his coat. The xebec hove along side the Santa Teresa and husband and wife gazed across at each other. Tangle was still shoving his arm into his coat sleeve and grinning like a lunatic when she cried out, "Isam!" and stretched her arms out to him.

"Habibi!" Beloved, he called back.

Thorton's mouth turned down. He walked to the far side of the poop deck as if to give them privacy but in reality to hide his own expression. He was berating himself for succumbing to Tangle's seductive wiles when he had known all along the man was married. He clasped his hands behind his back and stared at the blank and empty sea. All attention was on the happy reunion. Sweeps on both vessels splashed and stroked, easing them close enough together that grapples could be thrown.

"Jamila, get back from there! The ships will bump!" Tangle called to her in Arabic.

Thorton turned around and looked in spite of himself. The woman clambered back inside the rembate but would not leave the foredeck. The two vessels clashed together with a solid thump and were lashed bow to stern, each pointing in the opposite direction. Thus the xebec's foredeck and galiot's poop deck were side by side.

The xebec was about the same length as the galiot, but her gunwale was higher. Her quarterdeck was a proper quarterdeck of good height and length above her waist. The foredeck was a few feet above her waist and carried a rembate with small bowchasers but she had twelve ports cut in each of her sides with twelve-pounders behind them. The guns were on the weather deck. Her crew in motley clothes worked leisurely to brail the sails. Their tacks flapped loosely. It was a sloppy, casual way of handling the vessel, not at all like the taut ship that Tangle ran. If it miffed Thorton, it must gall Tangle.

Tangle barely said, "You have the conn, Mr. Thorton," before he flew down to the waist and scrambled over the railings onto the xebec. Jamila flew to meet him and threw herself into his arms. He picked her up and whirled her around and around and she squealed in delight. The silk sleeves fell back to expose her caramel-colored arms, arms that hung around the corsair's neck and would never let go. Thorton hated her on sight.

The happy husband kissed her in front of everyone. She melted in his arms and kissed him back. The crews of two vessels cheered. All except Thorton. He had the conn or he would have gone below to his cabin to sulk. He felt a terrible ache in his chest—and also parts lower. How easily he had attached himself to that which he had resisted for so long! The more fool he. He folded his arms and turned away.

 Midshipman Kaashifa was looking expectantly at him. "What orders, sir?"

"Find out if the captain wants his dunnage moved to the Sea Leopard. I expect he does." So Kaashifa ran down to the deck and scrambled over to the xebec. He had to wait until Tangle noticed him. There was a happy nod from the dark head, then Kaashifa was running back with the message.

"Make it so," Thorton replied.

Thorton must be a topic of conversation because Tangle was talking animatedly and his wife was looking in wonder towards the poop deck of the galiot. Thorton turned pink. Surely the captain would not be so indiscreet as to mention his affair to his wife at a moment like this. No, he must be explaining about Thorton's role in his rescue. Glumly he waited for the horrible scene to come to an end.

Tangle was calling to him. He went to the forward edge of the poop and leaned over the rail, "Sir?" he called.

"We're going into Tanguel. Follow us."

So Thorton got to watch Tangle mount to the xebec's quarterdeck like he owned it. His wife clung to him. Thorton wondered if the captain's wife could feel his eyes drilling into her back. The galiot was now his to command. He barked his orders sharply and steeled his heart against the man he knew he should never have accepted as his lover.

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